Paul Ryan

Paul Ryan's Poverty Plan: Good on Incarceration, Licensing, Perverse Incentives; Not So Good on Paternalism

What's worthwhile in the Wisconsin congressman's proposals, and what's not


Trying to change his image from "Leonard Peikoff" to "Jack Kemp."
U.S. House of Representatives

After Paul Ryan's proposals for fighting poverty were released late last week, the Wisconsin congressman's plan was heavily criticized as paternalistic. Those critics are correct: If you don't like the way the welfare state opens the door for bureaucrats to interfere in their clients' lives, you'll recoil from Ryan's notion that providers should "work with families to design a customized life plan to provide a structured roadmap out of poverty," with "sanctions for breaking the terms of the contract" and "incentives for exceeding the terms." I'm no fan of welfare-state paternalism, so I'm siding with the critics on that one.

But there's some good stuff in Ryan's plan too. Recognizing the substantial role that prison plays in the persistance of poverty, the congressman has endorsed reforms aimed at rolling back America's ridiculously high incarceration rates. He also wants to root out the sorts of red tape that disproportionately affect low-income Americans, with a special focus on the ways licensing laws are used to protect established businesses from upstart competition. And his draft makes a good point about the perverse incentives that can result when different transfer programs phase out at uncoordinated rates: "At key points on the income scale, the drop in aid is so abrupt that it creates an incentive to earn less in order to remain eligible." To ease that problem, Ryan wants to experiment with consolidating many of those programs into a single Opportunity Grant. I'm not persuaded by his ideas about how that grant would work, but the basic idea of a merger is sensible.

These ideas aren't as far-reaching as they could be. Ryan says we should reduce the use of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders; he doesn't say we should end the war on drugs. He wants to consolidate certain programs into a block grant sent to the states; he doesn't want to combine them all into a negative income tax sent to individuals. But I don't expect radicalism from elected officials, and I appreciate steps in the right direction. If we can come out of this with fewer people behind bars, fewer dumb licensing laws, and fewer bizarre bureaucratic incentives, Ryan will have done some good. If we can do all that while avoiding his more paternalist proposals, so much the better.

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  1. Paul Ryan’s Poverty Plan: Statist to the core.

  2. If you don’t like the way the welfare state opens the door for bureaucrats to interfere in their clients’ lives…

    Is the opposite of that handing out money with no oversight? Because I’m not down with that, either.

    1. Who pays the piper calls the tune. I see no problem with placing conditions and requirements on receiving government (taxpayer) money. Especially if they are designed to try to develop a path out of dependency for the recipients.

      1. But what if they fail to develop a path out of dependency for the recipients after 50 years? At what point does what they are “designed” for stop mattering?

        1. If it’s a failure on a large scale try something else. The world can’t be turned into utopia. But the current system of lifelong dependency has clearly failed to address poverty, so changes are long overdue.

          1. What you described is the status quo. It’s been failing for 50 years.

            1. I think you are misreading me. I agree the status quo has failed; it’s time to try something else. Like trying to take better steps to move people off of poverty, which I believe is what Ryan’s plan is trying to attempt.

              1. Ryan’s plan is expanding the bureucratic payrolls in order for the government to be a better parent to its people. It is the abandonment of even lip service to free market principles.

                1. I agree. I am surprised the article did not mention how anti-free market this policy (and our current policy) is.

      2. Who pays the piper calls the tune. I see no problem with placing conditions and requirements on receiving government (taxpayer) money.

        I don’t think the government should be allowed to require you to do anything as a condition of getting money you are otherwise entitled to, or keeping money you have earned, that it cannot do directly.

        If the feds have no authority, for example, to require you to piss in a cup once a month, they shouldn’t be able to require it in order to get your tax refund, contract with the feds, or cash your SocSec check.

        1. The Feds are handing out funds stolen via taxation. Fuck, even poor people pay all sorts of taxes. I am all for people getting back as much of their stolen money as possible, no strings attached. If you think that a high level of “oversight” and meddling is somehow going to suppress the size of the welfare state because people aren’t going to put up with those intrusions, well, on a macro-level you are sorely mistaken.

    2. Handing out money with no oversight means no paychecks for the overseers. The pros of getting rid of a big chunk of the bureaucracy goes a long way toward covering the cons of just giving poor people money in my book.

  3. “providers should “work with families to design a customized life plan to provide a structured roadmap out of poverty,” with “sanctions for breaking the terms of the contract” and “incentives for exceeding the terms.”

    If participation in the program were strictly voluntary, then this might be workable.

    1. Yeah, got to watch out for those roving press gangs forcing people to enroll for welfare benefits against their will.

      1. I believe BigT was probably referring to the act of providing the benefits being voluntary.

        1. In that case, never mind.

        2. Ideally it would be voluntary on both sides. If this program were more attractive than govt welfare it could prove a route out of the welfare state.

    2. You know that quoted sentence just sounds so fucking Orwellian. Who are these morally superior government people that are going to accomplish this miracle (apparently they will be equipped with a Hogwarts magic wand to improve the economy for their “clients”, give them degrees, sober them up, etc.)…because government often seems to be incredibly incompetent even doing simple things.

  4. Ryan is a Republican, right? So the agenda hidden in his proposal is to install a theocracy to stop you from having fun with your weewee.

    1. In general, that’s not far from the truth.

  5. While I’m not a fan of paternalism, at some point people are going to have to come to a decision point – are we going to leave the poor free to make their own decisions or are we going to try to relieve their poverty. Personally, I’m a fan of the former. But, of course, that entails doing away with much of the welfare state, leaving them free to realize the consequences of their decision without a subsidy from the rest of us. The thing is, that means we will have to tolerate some poverty. A great many of the poor are poor because of their decisions. While no one chooses to be poor, a great many make choices that lead to poverty.

    1. The problem with poverty is that it affects everyone. There are only three paths- we pay people to work, we pay them to not work, or we pay to incarcerate them.

      If there isn’t a job that can be had that will support yourself or your family, you’ll find a way. I hope for your sake that no one ever feeds their family by robbing yours.

  6. If you read the Progressive response to these proposals, it tells you all you need to know. Most articles don’t really bother to break down the specific policies, the headline and discussion focus on his MOTIVATION for proposing them in the first place. Is he sincere? Does he mean well?

    Who cares if the proposals work or not? What is important is to preserve the Left’s monopoly on Good Intentions. Ryan must be defeated not at the policy level but by refuting his motivations for proposing the policies in the first place. Only the Left cares about the poors!

    1. Clinton called this type of response the politics of personal destruction. Progs are experts in the art.

      1. Are they experts at it or does the advantage of ubiquitous leftist media outlets make it easier for them? Most leftist propaganda seems pretty childish to me. I guess that’s why they worked so hard to get a grip on schools.

        1. “Ubiquitous” really? Unless you define “lefty” (what a stupid fucking term) as anyone who has ever written anything you disagree with. If you seriously cannot find right wing voices in the media then you have a big pile of shit where your brain should be and you should go to some kind of specialist to look into that. Or just leave it there, the Republicans will nominate you for President in 2016.

    2. He’s a Republican so OF COURSE he doesn’t mean well.

      The fact that they’re asking the motivation questions tells me that they have given up.

  7. There is NO poverty in the US.

    That is all.

    1. True, there is no actual poverty. There is however relative poverty and an accompanying culture of dependency.

      1. Exactly right. Unfortunately both parties benefit from that culture of dependency.

    2. There will always be a bottom quintile.

      1. A bottom quintile who will be happy to vote for free shit in exchange for their vote.

        1. exchange free shit for their vote…


      2. Not if our heroes in government have anything to say about it.

    3. Thank you F d’A!

      “Poverty” in the USA only exists as some percentage of the median income. Find a number and pick it. It’s a moving target.

      If you gave every person in the USA $10,000 today, the “poverty level” would also increase by close to $10,000.

      “Poverty” is a designation that allows people to obtain food stamps, subsidized housing, free school lunches and programs, Medicaid, on and on. It has nothing to do with an actual living situation.

      I just read the other day that over 60% of people in India do not have access to a toilet and mostly just defecate on the ground, leading to regional bacterial diseases, and other health problems. I’ve visited third world countries where the average family lives in a tiny wooden shack with a piece of corrugated metal for a roof. Billions of people in the world exist on less than one dollar a day. THIS is poverty.

      Our “impoverished” live in private homes with heating, air conditioning, refrigerators, flat screen cable tv, computers, smartphones, on an on. More than 50% have cars.

      Face it, the reason we even have the current immigration crisis is people from all over the world risk their lives for a chance to live in what we call poverty.

      Maybe it’s time to say the war on poverty has been won, and start changing the dialogue?

      1. You’d think the jug-eared messiah would be eager to claim that poverty has been defeated in his reign. That would deprive the donkeys of their fav issue.

  8. I don’t see the problems with his proposal, or the “paternalism”. Welfare is inherently paternalistic in its establishment of patron-client relationships; surely expecting something on the part of the person on welfare makes it less (not more) paternalistic. Or would one say that, for example, a military contract is more paternalistic than welfare for the simple virtue that it has more rules for the citizen to follow, should he choose to work for the military?

    Mind you, it doesn’t go as far as I would like in addressing the problems with the welfare state, but it is a good start and I don’t see any specific ideas which are unwise or harmful.

  9. It’s likely that a third thing is responsible for both poverty and incarceration.

    1. +Theodore Dalrymple’s Life At the Bottom

  10. providers should “work with families to design a customized life plan to provide a structured roadmap out of poverty,” with “sanctions for breaking the terms of the contract” and “incentives for exceeding the terms.”

    The major problem with today’s welfare system is that it already imposes control. Recipients live in Section 8 housing, send kids to the state contract day care, purchase only what’s on the food stamp approved list. There’s just no road map involved, since each of the programs is independent and what the recipient gets is determined by eligibility rules, not what she actually needs.

    As such, the system is completely artificial, bearing no relationship to actually planning finances or running a household.

    Revamping the system to teach recipients to make a budget, and letting them make decisions based on it, would be a huge increase in freedom.

    1. and letting them make decisions

      Yeah, right. Freedom means asking permission and obeying orders. Decisions are to be made by authority, not you.

    2. If we just have to dole out welfare, just give everyone a fixed sum (and by everyone, I mean everyone – no means testing).

      Aaaand. That’s it. If you blow it on booze, pot, and pay-per-view, get evicted, and get turned away from the hospital for starvation and frostbite, well, tough. That’s on you for being a fucking idiot.

      1. 310,000,000 people x $20,000(?) =


        Just put it on the tab.

  11. Pay all legal residents of the USA $500/month. Then abolish TANF, the refundable tax credits, the personal exemptions, and the standard deduction. Families with 1-3 members who are still below the poverty line would qualify for food stamps. The cost of SSI would fall by at least 90%. Make Social security and unemployment benefits fully taxable. Food stamps and section 8 housing money would be the only welfare programs left. The great advantage is that the $500/month would never be reduced, no matter how successful you became. Exiting poverty would result only in a loss of food stamps and section 8 money.

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