The Speech Rep. Ryan Should Give

If past is prologue, Rep. Paul Ryan’s latest poverty proposals will exacerbate poverty and inequality. But there are alternative, effective policy options to grow the middle class.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) paints himself as a purveyor of bold new ideas. But unless his speech on poverty on Thursday represents a complete about-face from four years of radical budget proposals, his policy prescriptions will start from the failed philosophy of austerity. While Rep. Ryan’s past four budgets have garnered two-thirds of their cuts from programs that help low- and moderate-income families while lavishing tax cuts on millionaires, he claims that his proposed cuts to food, health, housing, and education are actually for the benefit of struggling families.

If past is prologue, Rep. Ryan will couch proposals to consolidate and ultimately cut programs that help working-class families in language about empowering communities, streamlining access to services, and promoting work. But pull back the layers, and his proposals are an outgrowth of his radical budget blueprint, which would dramatically exacerbate poverty and inequality.

What Rep. Ryan misses is that without this safety net, the poverty rate would be nearly twice as high. Nutrition assistance, affordable housing, child care and early education, tax credits for working families—these types of programs help millions of families stay afloat in an economy that simply does not work for many Americans. These programs also improve the long-term health, workforce, and educational outcomes of children and families. While there are steps we can and should take to improve our system of work and income supports, the safety net has protected millions of people from poverty and destitution.

Rather than proposing to slash the safety net, Rep. Ryan should take a look at our economy, which is not generating sufficient jobs and economic opportunity to lift people into the middle class. Bipartisan majorities of the American public understand that we must generate broader economic opportunity to get at the root cause of poverty. A recent Half in Ten poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans, including majorities of conservatives and liberals, agreed that, “Most people who live in poverty are poor because their jobs don’t pay enough, they lack good health care and education, and things cost too much for them to save and move ahead.”

Therefore, if Rep. Ryan is serious about cutting poverty and increasing economic mobility, here are three policies he should embrace in Thursday’s speech.

  1. Increase the minimum wage. The same day that Rep. Ryan will give his speech marks five years since America’s workers have gotten a raise. The national minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 per hour since 2009 even as other basic costs have risen, leaving millions of workers and their families out of reach of the middle class. Rep. Ryan should embrace the proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour and peg it to inflation. Doing so could lift as many as 4.6 million people out of poverty; it would also save $46 billion in nutrition assistance over 10 years, underscoring that boosting the wages of working families is the only sustainable way to realize savings in our nation’s safety net programs.
  2. Bring our work and family policies into the 21st century. Today, nearly two-thirds of families rely on the income of working mothers, but our nation’s policies are stuck in the 1950s. The United States is the only developed country with no paid family leave, making it impossible for millions of families to balance working and caregiving. In fact, having a child is one of the leading causes of poverty, as parents must take time away from work at the same time as expenses are rising. Rep. Ryan could embrace the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, or FAMILY Act, which would create a national paid leave program; it would give people job-protected leave with partial pay when they need time away from work for family or medical reasons, such as welcoming a new baby or caring for an ailing spouse. Research shows that in the year following a birth, new mothers who take paid leave are nearly 40 percent less likely to turn to public assistance than mothers who did not take paid leave, underscoring that stronger social insurance and workplace protections are a key strategy to reduce usage of the safety net without cutting supports for struggling families.
  3. Support high-quality child care and early education. At a recent hearing that Rep. Ryan convened on the War on Poverty, Tianna Gaines-Turner, a low-income working mother, testified to the barriers that unaffordable and low-quality child care present in her family’s struggle to join the middle class. In fact, on average, poor families who pay out of pocket for child care spend approximately one-third of their incomes just to be able to work. If Rep. Ryan wants to provide greater economic mobility for low-income families, he should support investments in programs such as Head Start and the Child Care and Development Block Grant, as well as in the bipartisan Strong Start for America’s Children Act, which would invest in preschool, quality child care for infants and toddlers, and home visiting as a resource to pregnant women and mothers with young babies, simultaneously helping parents work while boosting the future economic mobility of young children.

These are just three examples of policies that would boost economic mobility and cut poverty. But there are dozens of innovative and timely ideas—from paid sick days to apprenticeships, criminal justice reform to subsidized employment opportunities—that would create greater economic opportunity for millions of workers while reducing the number of people who need to turn to the safety net.

Rather than a repackaged Ryan budget, we need a renewed focus on boosting wages, bringing our work and family policies into the 21st century, and investing in human capital to increase mobility and unlock opportunity for all Americans.

Melissa Boteach is the Vice President of Half in Ten and the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress.

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Melissa Boteach

Senior Vice President, Poverty to Prosperity Program