Dollars and Poverty

Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, is worried that the federal government spends too much money trying to help poor people:

“The question isn’t whether the federal government should help; the question is how,” Mr. Ryan said at [a committee] hearing on Wednesday. “How do we make sure that every single taxpayer dollar we spend to reduce poverty is actually working?” 

Can you imagine someone like Ryan ever wanting to make sure that every single dollar spent on the military is actually working? I can’t.

The quote above comes from a New York Times article called “Changed Life of the Poor: Better Off But Far Behind”. The article describes the economic situation facing the poor today: 

Two broad trends account for much of the change in poor families’ consumption over the past generation: federal programs and falling prices.

Since the 1960s, both Republican and Democratic administrations have expanded programs like food stamps and the earned-income tax credit….

As a result, the differences in what poor and middle-class families consume on a day-to-day basis are much smaller than the differences in what they earn.

“There’s just a whole lot more assistance per low-income person than there ever has been,” said … a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “That is propping up the living standards to a considerable degree,” he said, citing a number of statistics on housing, nutrition and other categories.

[At the same time], the same global economic trends that have helped drive down the price of most goods also have limited the well-paying industrial jobs once available to a huge swath of working Americans. And the cost of many services crucial to escaping poverty — including education, health care and child care — has soared.

So, for example:

Tammie Hagen-Noey, a 49-year-old living in Richmond, Va., tapped at an iPhone as she sat on the porch of the group home where she lives… She earns $7.25 an hour at a local McDonald’s, and makes a little extra money on the side from planting small plots of land for neighbors….A few months ago, she sold her car for $500 to make rent.

Almost everybody could manage their spending better (even members of Congress) and that woman in Virginia presumably didn’t spend hundreds of dollars to buy the latest iPhone. Human beings get into all kinds of trouble, because of their own mistakes or through no fault of their own, and will continue to need help from the rest of us, even if every single dollar intended to help them doesn’t “work”. Republicans claim that cutting taxes and reducing regulations will create lots of better-paying jobs, allowing us to spend less on government assistance for the poor. What they’re really advocating is a race to the bottom, with more inequality, dangerous workplaces, pollution and unsafe food. Since we have to compete in a global economy, we’ll end up closer to the economic middle in future decades (nobody stays on top forever), but we shouldn’t race to become worse off.