GOP Poverty Plan Ignores the Evidence

One stated goal of the new poverty plan from House Speaker Paul Ryan and his House GOP colleagues is ensuring that our anti-poverty policies are “evidence-based.” That’s a laudable goal.  Unfortunately, the plan itself ignores the large amount of evidence that we already have about the effectiveness of some of our most powerful anti-poverty tools, including SNAP (formerly food stamps), the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and housing assistance.

In a particularly egregious example, the House GOP plan repeats the discredited claim that the federal government has spent trillions of dollars on anti-poverty programs with little or no impact on poverty, stating, “the official poverty rate in 2014 (14.8%) was no better than it was in 1966 (14.7%), when many of these programs started.” The clear implication is that the programs had no effect. 

Analysts across the political spectrum — including a bipartisan panel of witnesses who testified at a 2014 House Budget Committee hearing that Mr. Ryan himself chaired have repudiated this characterization. As these and other analysts have explained, comparing today’s official poverty rate to that of the late 1960s is essentially meaningless because the official rate fails to count virtually all the major anti-poverty programs created or expanded since the late 1960s — SNAP, the EITC, rental vouchers, etc. While the official measure ignores these anti-poverty programs, it includes anti-poverty supports that have been cut sharply, such as cash welfare assistance for poor families with children. This is why the official poverty rate shows no improvement.

A broader poverty measure that counts all cash and cash-like assistance provided by the federal government tells a different story. The safety net currently lifts tens of millions of Americans above the poverty line, including children, seniors, and people with disabilities. Moreover, the safety net cuts poverty by more than 42 percent and is ten times more effective in reducing poverty than it was a half century ago (see graph). 

The House GOP plan also ignores the significant evidence about the long-term gains associated with receiving safety-net assistance, particularly for children. Research suggests, for example, that SNAP and the EITC improve children’s reading and math test scores, high school completion rates, college enrollment levels, and expected future earnings. Housing assistance can also help. Research also indicates that children with housing vouchers are less likely to become homeless, miss school days, change schools, or be placed into foster care; and housing assistance that helps low-income families move to safe, low-poverty neighborhoods with better schools can enhance their children’s long-term prospects.

The GOP poverty task force’s professed concern for reducing poverty contrasts dramatically with all recent GOP budgets, which would do just the opposite. Every year since gaining control of the House in 2011, Republicans have drafted budget plans that would make large, disproportionate cuts to low- and moderate-income programs. 

This year’s budget, which was approved by the House Budget Committee in a partisan vote, would cut programs for low- and moderate-income people by about $3.7 trillion over the next decade.  And some 62 percent of its program cuts would come from low-income programs, even though they account for just 24 percent of total program spending. Among other consequences, the budget would end or reduce food assistance for millions of low-income families and their children, and eliminate health insurance for tens of millions of people. The budget plan would even take a meat axe to education programs, particularly those supporting higher education for low-income people.

If enacted, the budget plan would increase hunger and hardship — and poverty; it would diminish opportunities for advancement.

Poverty programs, like all programs, should be carefully scrutinized to see if they are effective. On this we all agree. But instead of cutting programs with a proven track record of success — such as SNAP, the EITC, and housing assistance — we should strengthen them as part of a renewed effort to fight poverty. That’s what a truly evidence-based policy plan would do.

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