WASHINGTON -- Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), one of the Republican Party's top safety net experts, changed his tune slightly this week about the War on Poverty.
"For the past 50 years, we’ve been waging a War on Poverty," Ryan said during a hearing Thursday. "And I don’t think you can call it anything but a stalemate."
"Stalemate" is a lot nicer than the f-word Ryan has used for antipoverty programs in the past few years. He called the federal government's safety net a "failed system" in May. He gave it a "failing grade" in January 2014. He said in 2013 that strategies associated with the War on Poverty had "failed miserably."
Thursday's rhetorical shift is tiny, possibly fleeting, and likely does not reflect any change in Ryan's policy preferences. But the small change in tune fits with a broader strategic shift that congressional Republicans adopted earlier this year on food stamps, one of the federal government's largest antipoverty initiatives. In previous years, Republicans attacked food stamps head-on with tales of undeserving people abusing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Now the House Agriculture Committee, which oversees the program, is undertaking what chairman Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) has described as a thoughtful, thorough review. The committee has held a series of hearings on SNAP, and Conaway has repeatedly asked former food stamp recipients and program advocates to testify.
Ryan's remarks came in his opening statement during a joint hearing with the House Agriculture Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee, which Ryan chairs. The hearing featured testimony from Chanel McCorkle, a Maryland mother of two who said she is worried that the income from her new job will disqualify her from continuing to receive food stamps and child care benefits from the government.
McCorkle's dilemma is something Ryan has long described as the "poverty trap" -- a situation in which the loss of benefits amounts to a marginal tax on formerly unemployed people when they take new jobs. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal D.C. think tank, says Ryan exaggerates the magnitude of the problem, though the group doesn't deny it exists.
Ryan has been criticized more heavily for his previous characterizations of the War on Poverty's track record, in particular his assertion that poverty has gone up since Lyndon Johnson began the initiative 50 years ago. As The Washington Post's fact-checker has noted, the official U.S. poverty rate of 14.5 percent overstates poverty's reach because it omits the effect of government benefits like food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit. (Even going by the official rate, today's 14.5 percent is better than the 22.4 percent of Americans who were below the poverty line in 1959.)
"I’m not saying we haven’t made any progress. We have," Ryan said Thursday in his opening statement, echoing sentiments from a TED talk he delivered the previous night. "But the federal government has spent trillions of dollars on dozens of programs. And yet upward mobility is no better than before. Today, if you were raised poor, you’re just as likely to stay poor as you were 50 years ago."
A Ryan spokesman declined to confirm or deny the premise of this story.