Quick Thoughts on Ryan’s Poverty Plan: What Are the Risks?

By Mike Konczal |

Paul Ryan released his anti-poverty plan yesterday, and lots of people have written about it. Bob Greenstein has a great overview of the block-granting portion of the plan. I’m still reading and thinking about it, but in the interest of answering the call for constructive criticism, a few points jump out that I haven’t seen others make yet.

How did we get here?

Republicans obviously have an interest in branding themselves as a “party of ideas.” And many liberals and Democrats also have an interest in trying to make the GOP seem like it’s been devoid of any ideas in the past several years.

But it’s worth noting that within a year of Democrats and liberal thinkers getting actively behind a serious increase in the minimum wage, and many activists making strides toward it on the local level, Paul Ryan just wholesale adopted President Obama’s EITC expansion program. That demonstrates the value of pushing the envelope.

Complexity and the EITC

Ryan’s plan, correctly, makes a big deal out of the complexity of receiving the EITC. The difficulty of navigating the system, the large number of improper payments, people not receiving what they should, people having to use tax-prep services to get the credit, and so on.

This is why I’m a huge fan of higher minimum wages as a complement to the EITC. Instead of 40 pages of rules and a dozen potential forms to fill out, you just put a sign that reads “$10.10 an hour” on the wall. Bosses and workers can’t trick each other or get confused about this, and nobody has to pay a tax-prep service to figure it out. Easy peasy.

Ryan wants to “direct the Treasury Department to investigate further” how to fix this, but in practice Treasury just turns around and yells at the IRS. And if the IRS knew how to fix it, they’d probably be on it.

There is also a simpler plan to fix this issue: just have the government mail people their tax forms already filled out, for them to either sign or correct. When a trial version of this, “Ready Return,” was tried in California, people immediately saw the potential for this to fix EITC delivery issues. Perhaps anti-poverty advocates can help provide momentum on this front.

Bosses and the EITC

Both Ryan and Marco Rubio have referred to putting the ETIC credit directly into workers’ paychecks. Ryan: “[A]nother potential area of reform should focus upon EITC simplicity and delivery. If families received the credit with their paychecks, the link between work and the EITC would be that much clearer.”

I’d be worried if employers were the ones responsible for adding this wage subsidy. I don’t think there’s a convincing argument that the EITC or food stamps lower wages directly (though there is one indirectly for the EITC), but if employers got a wage subsidy themselves to pass to their workers, it’s easy to imagine them pocketing part of it through lower wages, especially in the monopsony of low-wage labor markets.

A discussion of welfare reform

Rather than a “welfare reform — yay or nay?” conversation, it would be really useful if people arguing for the block-granting of the entire anti-poverty agenda would point out what they do and do not like about what happened in the 1990s. Especially as proponents hold up welfare reform as the model.

As Matt Bruenig notes, the work requirements and other restrictions go against the concept of subsidiarity. Greenstein writes, “the block grant would afford state and local officials tantalizing opportunities to use some block grant funds to replace state and local funds now going for similar services…That’s what happened under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant.” In retrospect, TANF didn’t survive the business cycle, and it clearly has cut spending by cutting the rolls. Is that what people want to accomplish with food stamps, which have done wonders to boost childhood life outcomes? If not, what can be done other than assert that this time will be different?

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Mike Konczal is a Fellow with the Roosevelt Institute, where he works on financial reform, unemployment, inequality, and a progressive vision of the economy. His blog, Rortybomb, was named one of the 25 Best Financial Blogs by Time magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rortybomb.