House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan’s new report on safety net programs and poverty is disappointing. Though it purports to be a balanced, evidence-based review of the safety net, it falls far short of that standard. It’s replete with misleading and selective presentations of data and research, which it uses to portray the safety net in a negative light. It also omits key research and data that point in more positive directions.
For several years now, Ryan (R-Wisc.) has proposed annual budgets that would deeply cut programs for the poor. The Ryan budgets have consistently secured between 60 and 67 percent of their budget cuts from programs for low- or moderate-income people. The true test of Ryan’s forthcoming budget with regard to poverty will lie in whether it follows past practice and targets programs for less-fortunate Americans for the lion’s share of its savings. Unfortunately, the new report may be, in part, an effort to lay a framework for severe cuts in low-income programs once again.
The report substantially understates both the nation’s progress in reducing poverty over the past 50 years and the safety net’s impact today.
* The report features the “official” poverty measure even though analysts across the political spectrum — and all three witnesses at a recent hearing that Ryan held, including the two Republicans he invited — have warned that the official poverty measure is deeply flawed for tracking changes in poverty over recent decades and for evaluating the impact of the safety net today. The official measure ignores a very large share of the safety net — including SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), tax-based benefits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, and low-income housing assistance, among other programs. Using a more comprehensive measure of poverty that analysts broadly favor, known as the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), Columbia University researchers recently found that poverty had fallen markedly, from 26 percent in 1967 to 16 percent in 2012. Ryan buries this fact, failing to note the deep reductions in poverty under the SPM since the 1960s until page 201 of his report.