U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to get America back on the road
By Christian Schneider, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Ponder, for a moment, what a car designed by the federal government would look like. The base most likely would start with a decades-old, well-worn family sedan. Then, as new technological features become available, they wouldn't be incorporated into the car itself, they would instead be piled on its roof. After decades, the sedan would be covered in boxes offering anti-lock brakes, Bluetooth stereo connectivity, cruise control and air conditioning. But none of these features would actually be integrated into the operation of the car, keeping it from operating as a wholly functioning system.
This is the approach the federal government takes to its social service programs.
Every few years, Congress adds a new entitlement to the layers of programs that already exist, often with little regard to how the new entitlement will affect the other existing programs and recipients. In 2012, the federal government offered 92 separate poverty-fighting programs, costing taxpayers more than $800 billion. And yet even with 17 food-aid programs, 20 housing programs and dozens of education and job-training programs, poverty is higher than it has been in a generation.
Last week, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) introduced a sweeping new plan that recognizes the fact that if we could do it all over and build an effective social safety net, it wouldn't resemble anything like what we have now. Given what decades of federal spending has taught us, we wouldn't just heap program upon program, with little concern for whether they actually serve their intended purpose.
Ryan's plan creates what he calls an Opportunity Grant that would allow states to tailor their social service plans to the needs of their own citizens. Funding would remain constant, but each state would receive aid in the form of a block grant and be free to implement innovative anti-poverty policies. To revive the car analogy, not every state needs the same features: If you've lived through a Wisconsin winter, you know that your car here better have a more effective heater than one in Florida.
In restructuring federal aid to be more of a bottom-up endeavor, Ryan's plan provides incentive for states to streamline services to better fit the needs of individuals. When programs are run at the local level by those who are most familiar with the needs of recipients, there should be less duplication and confusion. Those needing government assistance no longer would have to meander through a mélange of programs to get aid; they would be assigned a single case worker who would personalize their own assistance plan.
Social service programs aren't the only place where Ryan recognizes the cumulative, distorting effect of congressional actions. His plan also calls for a review of the criminal justice system, which currently incarcerates 2.2 million Americans. Politicians looking to appear "tough on crime" in campaign ads have consistently ratcheted up criminal penalties, including implementing mandatory minimum sentences that apply to, for instance, non-violent drug offenders.
Through penalty creep, these sentences often no longer fit the crime. Punishment for the men sent to prison for these crimes, the majority of whom are minorities, extends well beyond their time behind bars. In his report, Ryan cites a study demonstrating that after serving time, a person can expect to earn about $179,000 less over his lifetime. This has long-term deleterious effects on the individual, his family and his community.
Education hasn't been exempt from the layering effect. There are 45 federal programs supporting early learning and child care, 80 K-12 programs, and 37 higher education initiatives. There are 14 programs offering tax benefits for higher education, totaling about $36 billion in foregone government revenue. Yet low-income students are at a disadvantage because they can't wait until they file their taxes to reap the benefits of student aid. They need help when school starts.
Much of the reaction to Ryan's plan will deal with all the ancillary political questions. Does this cast Republicans in a better light? Has Ryan's tour of poor, crime-ridden areas been for show? Will Democrats ever go along with it? (It does incorporate some of their ideas, such as expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit — an initiative favored by President Barack Obama.) What does this mean for Ryan's national standing?
Those questions will all work themselves out in time. For now, Ryan's plan to recalibrate the federal government to focus on outcomes, rather than inputs, should take center stage. If the television show "Hoarders" showed up at Uncle Sam's house, it would find rooms cluttered with ineffective, out-of-date and conflicting government programs. Ryan's plan helps organize the mess, enabling those who need help to find what they need.