The new Paul Ryan report on poverty and safety net programs

I read much of the document last night, here are a few comments:

1. The so-called “war on poverty” has gone better than most of this document would appear to suggest, although this ends up being acknowledged in the appendix on poverty measures.

2. High implicit marginal tax rates are a problem for poor families, but they receive too much attention in this report.  Those same high implicit rates never stopped higher earners, who at some point were (often) much poorer themselves.  Furthermore, without some assumption of dysfunctional behavior, high implicit marginal tax rates will hurt society but should not hurt lower earners per se.

3. There is an implicit ranking of programs as good or bad.  If a program is ranked as bad, there is a cataloging of its cost, but this is not compared to potential benefits, even granting that net cost is positive.

4. Two things that work to cure poverty are immigration and cash transfers.  These points should be stressed more.  More generally, not much of an analytical framework is imposed on the material.  And the discussion of barriers to advancement is extremely thin.  Collapsing families surely constitute an important issue, but reading the discussion of that topic yields precious little knowledge, not even “false knowledge.”

5. Reading through the long list — the too-long list I would say– of programs, one really does get the feeling that a lot of them ought to be replaced by cash grants or pro-employment cash incentives, such as EITC.  But what else should we be doing differently?  If one insists that the point of the document is simply to list extant programs, so be it.  But what is the point of that exercise?  Why not introduce some material on the causes of dysfunctional health care, educational, and rental sectors?

Overall this needed to be a lot better than it was.  The document has almost no vision, only a marginal command of the scholarly literature, and it is a good example of how the conservative movement is still allowing the poverty issue to defeat it and tie it up in knots.

There are further criticisms here, not all of them convincing.  Paul Krugman had a few posts on the document too.

I am tonight doing an event on poverty with Neera Tanden, Steve Pearlstein, and Reihan Salam, and a few others on the Arlington campus of GMU.


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