Paul Ryan, the perennial media darling and the Republican vice-presidential nominee in 2012, has released an anti-poverty plan that has been widely hailed by a group of conservative policy enthusiasts known as the reformicons. According to Ross Douthat, The New York Times's house reformicon, the plan represents new and exciting conservative thinking, reflecting the "growing contrast between the policy ferment on the Republican side of the aisle and the staleness and/or small-ball quality of the Democratic Party's 'what comes after Obama?' agenda."
The problem with this argument is that none of Ryan's ideas are new, and many of them are the antithesis of exciting.
Yes, the Ryan plan contains some ideas that are genuinely good. Its calls for major criminal justice reform are salutary — mass incarceration is fiscally wasteful as well as wasteful of human lives, and seeing an endorsement from a prominent Republican public official is reason for cautious optimism. It's easier to propose cuts to corporate welfare in white papers than in the congressional sausage-making process, but to do so is unobjectionable. And proposing reforms to local regulations such as licensing requirements are at least defensible in some cases. None of these ideas are new, but originality is overrated — there is the potential basis for agreement here.
The core social welfare proposals of Ryan's plan, however, fail both the originality and goodness tests. The plan does, at least, avoid the direct, savage cuts to discretionary spending that were a hallmark of Ryan's previous budgets. Ryan's proposal entails converting a great deal of federal anti-poverty spending into block grants to state governments, which would be free to experiment with those funds. There is, to put it mildly, nothing novel about this idea. Going back to conservative southern Democrats in the New Deal, conservatives have advocated giving states more discretion about how to use federal money.
But more to the point, in addition to being very old, the block grant idea is terrible. As the economist Max Sawicky notes, spending through block grants has the effect of creating disincentives for states to spend adequate money on poverty, while also undermining the political basis for maintaining the programs. In addition, giving the states discretion has tended to involve withholding spending from the "underserving" poor, who tend to be overwhelmingly people of color. The intrusive paternalism the Ryan plan encourages is also unattractive.
The notion that "let them eat states' rights" is a new and exciting idea is particularly perverse given some other recent developments. To the widespread applause of Republicans, a panel on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals read the Affordable Care Act as not providing subsidies to people purchasing health insurance on federally established exchanges. According to defenders of the decision, this was not a drafting mistake; they say Congress intended to only make the subsidies available on state-established exchanges, but were surprised by how few states went along.
As a reading of the ACA, this argument is absurd — clearly Congress anticipated that some states would not establish exchanges, which is why the federal backstop was created. Virtually nobody involved in creating the ACA believes that the law was designed to create federal exchanges that wouldn't work. It is fair to say, however, that some Democrats were surprised by how many states proved unwilling or unable to establish their own exchanges.
But consider the implications of this. The latest conservative legal argument against the ACA boils down to: "you screwed up — you thought the states actually wanted to provide people with health care!" And the Supreme Court re-writing the ACA in 2012 to make it easier for states to reject the Medicaid expansion has also been a catastrophe, with Republican statehouses inflicting easily avoidable pain and suffering on millions of people to prove their anti-Obama bona fides.
So — why is devolving anti-poverty policy to the states supposed to be a great idea again?
Indeed, the experience of the ACA is a compelling repudiation of the idea that giving states more discretion over social policy is a good idea — or that Republicans at the state level genuinely care about helping the poor and the needy. Many statehouses are opposed to federal anti-inequality measures in principle, and even less hostile ones have proved administratively inept. Anti-poverty policy in the U.S. needs more federal intervention, not less.