Has Atlas Stopped Shrugging?

Wisconsin congressman, House Budget Committee chairman, and erstwhile disciple of Ayn Rand, put forward a proposal this past month to reform the nation’s safety net in the pages of USA Today. [1] While many familiar with Mr. Ryan’s previous offerings might suspect treachery, those of us acclimated to the doctrine of redemption would do well to give his suggestion an objective analysis. After all, as Mr. Ryan himself puts it, “Our country has had enough of politics. Let's talk solutions.”

His concern is that there are a number of programs to assist those in poverty, but the problem seems to be getting worse. “Real median household income is still lower than before the recession. Deep poverty in America has reached record levels over the past three years.” Of course this situation really doesn’t have anything to do with the safety net; rather, it is a result of manufacturing jobs bleeding out of the country as companies seek cheap labor in other places. Much of the employment remaining is saddled with the efforts of employers who seek to cheat the market with less than living wages. He doesn’t propose to do anything about these things. But since few in Congress seem interested in doing anything about these things, it is worthwhile to take a look at the operation of the safety net, since we’ll be in great need of it for some time to come.

What he wants to do is develop something he calls an “Opportunity Grant.” This would essentially be a block grant that would be given to states to develop their own safety net programs. This would involve no cut in funding. The program would be voluntary. Only states that submitted a plan and met Mr. Ryan’s proposed requirements would participate.

The requirements would be:

(1) a state would have to spend the money granted on those in need;

(2) every “able-bodied recipient” would have to be subject to a work requirement and a time limit;

(3) a state would be required to give aid recipients a choice between at least two service providers which they would deal with exclusively, instead of the state welfare agency only, and

(4) a neutral third party would have to be provided to measure progress.

While the time limit of the second requirement is already a feature of cash welfare, it is draconian all the same. The fact is, there are always more people seeking employment than there are available jobs. It is a mathematical reality that some people are going to be out of work. There is a basic inhumanity involved in leaving without assistance those who find themselves continuously on the losing side under such circumstances. It would be better if Mr. Ryan would at least allow states to recognize this and act accordingly.

The two service provider requirement could actually work well. Non-profits and community groups could become service providers. Such “groups could provide a more personalized form of aid through case management.” Mr. Ryan explains the advantages this way: 

“Right now, you have to go to a bunch of different offices to enroll in a bunch of different programs, often with different paperwork requirements and eligibility standards. Under the Opportunity Grant, you could go to one office and work with one person. That person would give you financial assistance, but could also act as a personal resource. Maybe you're struggling with addiction and you need counseling. Maybe you come from a broken family and you need a network of support. The point is, you would work together to get from where you are to where you want to go.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Ryan’s Randian demon hasn’t been exorcised completely. He would allow a service provider to be a for-profit business. But it is difficult to see how a business could make a profit dispensing aid to the poor where all the grant money would have to be spent on those in need. Presumably, taking a percentage would be out of the question. In any event, there would be too much potential for corruption if this part of the plan was implemented.

At the end of the day, a social safety net isn’t an end in itself. To really alleviate poverty, the conditions need to be brought about where people don’t need a safety net. The doctrines of the cult of unregulated capitalism that dominates Mr. Ryan’s Republican Party nowadays are not conducive to that end. But his proposal for improving the safety net contains features worthy of further discussion. Hopefully Mr. Ryan will heed his own advice and put politics aside as his plan is being considered.

Jack Quirk 

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