When Mitt Romney stood before a dining room full of well-heeled Republican donors and casually slagged off half the American population as incurable parasites, he unwittingly triggered a wave of public concern among Republicans about the plight of America's poor. The Washington Post reported in November that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), supposedly "mortified by Romney's 47 percent remarks," was putting together an anti-poverty plan as part of a "more inclusive" vision for the GOP. That was followed by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) delivering a much-hyped speech on poverty in early January. Republicans, stung by Romney's plutocratic gaffe, wanted people (or journalists, at least) to know that they cared about the poor, too.
As far as PR goes, it worked pretty well. Beltway reporters and pundits began talking about the new Republican focus on poverty. Ryan scored interviews with network anchors, newspaper op-eds, and a speech at Brookings. He used them to rail against Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty and to drop hints at a "new direction" for alleviating the plight of America's poor. Absent from all of this was any concrete policy proposal on how to achieve that end.
This week, however, Ryan took the first step from rhetoric to policy with a 200-page report on the state of federal anti-poverty programs. It doesn't lay out any proposals, but it does at least offer a glimpse at the areas of federal spending that Ryan will try to eviscerate, allegedly in the cause of aiding the poor. And while the shift from pure PR to matters of substance was small, it's already caused Ryan to stumble.
Ryan's report looks at a variety of federal programs and throws some selectively cited data points at them in an attempt to gauge their effectiveness at relieving poverty. A few easily impressed reporters sat in awe at the sheer length of the report — CNN called it a "comprehensive analysis" — but when other journalists dug into Ryan's methods and sources, some serious problems emerged.
Rob Garver of the Fiscal Times called up a few of the economists cited in Ryan's report, and said they had "reactions ranging from bemusement to anger at Ryan's report, claiming that he either misunderstood or misrepresented their research." As Garver noted, Ryan argued that the War on Poverty has been ineffective despite its high cost, but to make this argument he "seemed to arbitrarily chop off data from two of the most successful years of the War on Poverty."
Salon's Brian Beutler observed that the metric Ryan used to measure the war on poverty's effectiveness excludes some highly effective anti-poverty measures, and seemed "designed to create a false impression that tons of money has been wasted, when really it's done exactly what it was supposed to."
Indeed, the War on Poverty has actually been pretty successful. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities — which Ryan cited several times throughout his report — observed back in January that when you factor in the non-cash and tax code benefits that make up an increasingly large portion of the safety net, "the poverty rate fell from 26 percent to 16 percent" between 1967 and 2012. (CBPP blasted Ryan's report as "replete with misleading and selective presentations of data and research.")
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (known more commonly as the food stamp program), a fat target of previous Ryan budgets and singled out in Ryan's poverty report as largely ineffective, is actually pretty good at pulling people out of poverty. Once again we turn to CBPP, which found that SNAP kept 4.9 million people — 2.2 million of them children — out of poverty in 2012.
The fact that academics and journalists are already finding errors and omissions in Ryan's math doesn't bode well for the coming policy portion of his anti-poverty crusade. The thing to remember about Ryan's misleading attacks on the War on Poverty is that they're born of necessity. Ryan's ideology won't allow for the success of social safety net programs — he believes they provide "disincentives" to work and turn people into wards of the state.
To dismantle that safety net, he has to argue that it has failed the people it was designed to help. And the only way to do that is through the sort of creative manipulation of data on display in his report.
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