WASHINGTON -- Last week, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said the government could better fight poverty if poor people worked with case managers on a "life plan."
On Wednesday, Ryan told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast that case management is just an idea he likes, not something he'd insist on, such as work requirements or time limits for welfare recipients.
"What we’re saying is we’re not mandating case management. We’re saying this is one of the things we recommend, but give the states the ability to try other ideas," Ryan said in response to a question from HuffPost.
During the rollout of his Opportunity Grant proposal Ryan strongly emphasized the benefits of case management. His big idea is to consolidate federal safety net programs into a single funding stream states could use, at least theoretically, to take better aim at poor people's problems. Instead of just passively receiving food stamps and other benefits, the plan says, low-income families "will work with a single provider for all their needs" and create a "customized life plan to provide a structured roadmap out of poverty."
In a USA Today op-ed, Ryan said people seeking aid could work with a single point of contact in the government who would give them financial assistance and also be a personal resource.
"Maybe you're struggling with addiction and you need counseling," Ryan wrote. "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."
With a case manager's consultation, the poverty-stricken would agree to a contract outlining benchmarks for success, a timeline for meeting those goals, penalties for failure and rewards for exceeding the contract's terms. Ryan argued case management would be an effective way for the government to alleviate both the situational poverty of people experiencing setbacks and the long-term poverty afflicting 3.5 percent of Americans.
Ryan also strongly emphasized that his new proposal -- unlike his previous budget blueprints -- was not designed to reduce the federal budget by slashing safety net programs.
Liberal critics said slashing would be the inevitable result, partly because an army of new case managers would cost a lot of money. The cash would come from programs that previously sent it directly to the poor in the form of benefits such as food stamps and housing vouchers.
"You have working poor families who don’t need a life coach [and] you’d be cutting the assistance they get in order to give other people life coaches," LaDonna Pavetti of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities told HuffPost. The CBPP, a liberal D.C. think tank, has been sharply critical of the Opportunity Grant idea.
In addition to saying Wednesday that case management wouldn't be mandated, Ryan disagreed that it would cost a ton of money.
"The wrong way to look at this is take just the federal money and then assume some cost for casework management and then therefore that’s how it works," the Wisconsin Republican said. "The point is to do this in conjunction with the private sector, the public sector, the charitable sector. Leverage other dollars that are already out there that are working at odds with the federal government to work alongside so that we are all pulling together."
Throughout his proposal, Ryan cites the work of outside groups, such as Catholic Charities of Fort Worth, Texas, that do holistic case management.
Heather Reynolds, president of Catholic Charities Fort Worth, testified before Ryan's committee earlier this month. In an interview, she offered a hypothetical example to show how case managers can help people beyond just hooking them up with handouts. It's partly about encouragement.
"[Say] you’re in vocation school to be an aviation mechanic, your mom gets sick, you have to take her to the doctor and you miss your test," Reynolds said.
"You say, 'I can’t do this, I’m done, I missed my test, it’s over,'" she said. "A good case manager is going to push you, to say, 'This is a just setback ... Have you sat down with your professor? Can you do extra credit?'"
Pavetti said there's limited evidence that employment programs result in a large majority of participants landing steady jobs, citing a 2011 analysis by Project Match. While such programs have used case management to help people get back to work, about half of enrollees remain without steady employment after the programs end.
Under Ryan's plan, Pavetti asked, "What happens to the people who don’t get jobs?"