Paul Ryan gives speech on poverty

If you lived in another country and have been following the 2012 Presidential Race, you might think America has an extremely low poverty rate. Between the talk about increasing our military spending, taxing the wealthy, small business creation and growing the middle-class, poor Americans have been left out of the conversation.

Wednesday, vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan gave his first policy speech since joining the Romney ticket. His topic? How to win the “war on poverty.”

While many have taken Ryan to task for his budget proposals that would drastically cut funding for programs poor Americans rely on to stay afloat, Ryan assured the audience that America can win the war.

According to Ryan, dismantling the social safety net and thrusting the responsibly of caring for the poor is better left to private groups, religious organizations, and charities.

He told the Cleveland, Ohio crowd: 

The welfare reform mindset hasn’t been applied with equal vigor across the spectrum of our anti-poverty programs.

In most of these programs, especially in recent years, we’re still trying to measure compassion by how much government spends not by how many people we help escape from poverty.

Just last year, total federal and state spending on means-tested programs came in at more than $1 trillion. How much is that in practical terms? For that amount of money, you could give every poor American a check for $22,000.

Instead, we spend all that money attempting to fight poverty through government programs, and what do we have to show for it?

Today, 46 million people are living in poverty. That’s 1 in 6 Americans. It’s the highest poverty rate in a generation. During the last 4 years, the number of people living in poverty and food stamps has gone up by 15 million. Medicaid is reaching a breaking point. 1 in 4 American students fails to obtain a high school diploma. In our major cities, half of our kids don’t graduate – half.

In this war on poverty, poverty is winning. We deserve better. We deserve a clear choice for a brighter future.

He continued:

Where government is entrusted with providing a safety net, Mitt Romney and I have our own vision for how to keep it strong. It’s a vision that leaves the failures of the past in the past and proposes instead to build on those reforms that have worked.

For starters, a Romney-Ryan administration will clearly restore those parts of the welfare reform law that have been undone or weakened. We will do this for the sake of millions of Americans who deserve to lead lives of dignity and freedom. 

We’ll also apply other lessons from welfare reform’s success. For example, many of the solutions that worked in the 1990s came from states such as my home state of Wisconsin and leaders such as former Governor Tommy Thompson. President Clinton and the Congress recognized that it would be a good idea to give states more power to tailor welfare to the unique needs of their citizens.

Mitt Romney and I want to apply this idea to other anti-poverty programs, such as Medicaid and food stamps. The federal government would continue to provide the resources, but we would remove endless federal mandates and restrictions that hamper state efforts to make these programs more effective.

According to a report by the Center on Budget and Policy, Ryan’s proposed budget would gut most social programs.

They write:

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget plan would get at least 62 percent of its $5.3 trillion in nondefense budget cuts over ten years (relative to a continuation of current policies) from programs that serve people of limited means. This stands a core principle of President Obama’s fiscal commission on its head and violates basic principles of fairness.

Despite Ryan asserting that the “American Dream” has taken a hit in the past four years, many economists have roundly called this dream a myth because the ability to move between social classes isn’t as probable as most Americans think.

Howard Steven Friedman, Columbia University economist, recently noted that the “statistics are very depressing for those who subscribe to the notion that America is a meritocracy and a ‘land of opportunity.’”

Friedman cites a study on social mobility access, which researched the probability of economic mobility in Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, the U.K., and the U.S.

He writes:

One interesting study examined the probability that a son will remain in his father’s income quintile, where a quintile represents one-fifth of the population ranked from lowest to highest income. In that study of six countries (Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States), the data demonstrate that 42 percent of the American sons of fathers born in the poorest quintile landed in the poorest quintile themselves. This rate of the persistence of poverty was far higher than the 30 percent found in the United Kingdom and well above the 25 percent to 28 percent range found in Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Norway.

Despite the overwhelming majority of Americans believing in the “rags to riches” notion of the American dream, for many of us this just isn’t a reality.

So how do people really overcome poverty

One of the keys to breaking the cycle of generational poverty is education.

Friedman writes:

Of the adults who grew up in low-income families but earned college degrees, only 16 percent stayed in the lowest income quintile. Of the adults who started in the lowest income quintile and failed to earn a college degree, 46 percent stayed there. End inequality in education, and we strike a blow for social mobility — although persistent disparities in income by race and gender still need to be addressed.

Despite telling Ohioans “the quality of our education system are among the many issues this year where the neediest of Americans have a direct stake,” Ryan’s proposed budgets would severely cut funding to several school districts around the country, especially those that rely heavily on federal funds for programs targeting low-income students. Conversely, districts that don’t use as many federal funds (usually those in wealthier areas), wouldn’t be adversely affected.

Poverty is a serious issue that, to date, has been glossed over in this year’s political conversations. While no one wants a society where half (or according to Mitt Romney 47%) of Americans are dependent on the government, shredding the social safety net and leaving vulnerable citizens to fend for themselves is equally unthinkable.

*Photo via the New York Times

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