House Budget Committee to Hold Hearing on Poverty
Is the federal government responsible for lifting millions of Americans out of poverty or trapping them in it?
That question has become a political Rorschach test this year, the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty. On Wednesday, Representative Paul D. Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, is holding a third hearing on the government and the poor, featuring testimony from the “front lines.”
In recent months, Mr. Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, has loudly argued that the government has failed in its effort to end deprivation and ensure mobility.
“Today, the poverty rate is stuck at 15 percent — the highest in a generation,” a House Republican report on the war on poverty argued. “The trends are not encouraging. Federal programs are not only failing to address the problem. They are also in some significant respects making it worse.”
With the federal government spending about $800 billion on 92 programs to combat poverty in the 2012 fiscal year, Mr. Ryan has been critical of redundancy. The spending includes, according to a House Republican tally, 15 programs related to food aid and 20 related to education and job training.
“The very disarray among all these federal programs has created what’s known as the poverty trap,” the report said. “Poor families face very high implicit marginal tax rates. The federal government effectively discourages them from making more money.”
Those programs also at times penalize low-income workers when they earn more, Mr. Ryan argues.
But Democrats have countered by pointing to evidence that government spending has helped millions of families survive the downturn — and arguing that Republican proposals would make poverty worse.
An analysis by the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that Mr. Ryan’s budget achieves 69 percent of its nonmilitary cuts from programs for families with low or moderate incomes. That includes $2.7 trillion in health care cuts, $137 billion from food stamps and $125 billion from Pell Grants that cover education costs.
“I appreciate that some of my Republican colleagues have shown interest in cutting poverty in this country; however, we have starkly different opinions on how we achieve that goal,” Representative Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, said on the House floor. “Gutting programs is not a path out of poverty. The American people deserve a fighting chance for a middle-class life.”
Republicans and Democrats are also deeply divided on whether government support has buoyed living standards without encouraging mobility, with the possibly pernicious side effect of encouraging dependency on federal programs.
“For too long, we have measured compassion by how much we spend instead of how many people get out of poverty,” Mr. Ryan said, releasing the Republican report on the war on poverty.
Economists broadly agree that living standards have hugely increased for low-income Americans. But earning inequality has widened in recent decades, and income gains at the bottom of the scale have proven meager.
The hearing is scheduled to include testimony from Bishop Shirley Holloway, founder of the House of Help City of Hope; Robert L. Woodson, president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise; and Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund.