Opinion

The one fact that destroys Paul Ryan's anti-poverty plan

Even six years after the "recovery" started, there still aren't enough jobs

Last week Paul Ryan got another in a long line of inexplicable journalist tongue baths about how deeply concerned he is about poverty, this one practically indistinguishable from the last round. It even features the same reporter, McKay Coppins.

Now, I don't personally buy Paul Ryan's shtick for a moment. When you look at the content of his policy proposals, it overwhelmingly consists of slashing the bejesus out of programs on which millions of poor folks currently depend, and replacing them with bupkis.

But let's take him at his word for a moment. The theory that underlies Ryan's theory of poverty is that government benefits act, he says, like "a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency." This doesn't jibe with an understanding of the structure of poverty, but it does have a certain everyday, surface plausibility. Just speaking personally, I'm a pretty lazy person, and having some kind of structure forcing me to get my stuff done is enormously helpful in actually getting it done.

Here's the problem that Ryan-style poverty analysis has never even pretended to grapple with: If you're going to force people to do something, it must be actually possible to accomplish that thing.

Ryan's poverty plan is to starve the poor and unemployed out into the job market by taking away their benefits, so they can start earning money, participating in the economy, and earning self-respect and so forth. But what if there aren't enough jobs to go around? What if you're starving people out into a job market which, as a matter of arithmetic, simply can't accommodate them?

We can measure this and take it out of the realm of theory. It's pretty easy, in fact. What you do is count up the number of unemployed people and then count up the number of job openings, and then compare the two. Here's the data. At the height of the Great Recession, we find that there were almost seven job seekers per job opening; right now the number is 2.6. That only recently crossed to below the very worst it got during the last recession in the early 2000s when it peaked at 2.9. That's how depressions work, and we've understood that since Keynes laid out the logic of effective demand back in 1936 (and arguably before that).

Ryan and his fellow Republicans, of course, just refuse to acknowledge the obvious and readily available fact of jobs < job seekers, let alone the still fairly straightforward economics of depressions. And sympathetic reporters like Coppins never press him on it. Indeed, Ryan has gone further than advocacy already: As Ned Resnikoff points out, already 16 percent of Americans are going hungry on a regular basis. This is partly a result of eye-watering cuts to food stamps, which passed with Ryan's support. His own budget has much, much more severe cuts.

So regardless of how good Ryan is at emoting sympathy, without a realistic understanding of how things work he is simply a merciless poor-bludgeoning ideologue whose program consists of starving and taking money from the most vulnerable people in the nation. The Spanish inquisitors might have believed that they were simply saving people's eternal souls, but that didn't make the strappado any less painful or unnecessary.

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