Is Paul Ryan’s New Budget an April Fool’s Joke?

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April 1 2014 4:55 PM

Paul Ryan Cares About the Poor

Just not enough to do anything to help them.

Paul Ryan
Paul Ryan’s Path to Prosperity would be a bumpy one for many low-income Americans.

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

“This is my next ‘Roadmap,’ ” said House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, while meeting with poor residents of Cleveland, Ohio. “I want to figure out a way for conservatives to come up with solutions to poverty. I have to do this.”

Jamelle Bouie Jamelle Bouie

Jamelle Bouie is a Slate staff writer covering politics, policy, and race.

That was almost a year and a half ago, and in the time since, Ryan has been vocal about his new concern with low-income Americans. Earlier this month, in fact, he released a report on the state of federal anti-poverty programs, which he presented as a precursor to more rigorous work on reforming the system.

“There are nearly 100 programs at the federal level that are meant to help, but they have actually created a poverty trap,” said Ryan in an interview with the Washington Post. “There is no coordination with these programs, and new ones are frequently being added without much consideration to how they affect other programs. We’ve got to fix the situation, and this report is a first step toward significant reform.”

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Tuesday morning, we finally got the latest step in Ryan’s project: The fiscal year 2015 edition of the “Path to Prosperity,” Ryan’s yearly budget release. But instead of new poverty reforms or anything else to showcase the congressman’s interest in low-income Americans, it contains the usual barrage of tax cuts for the wealthy, financed by massive cuts to the social safety net.

Ryan doesn’t say much about his tax cuts aside from giving basic principles. As with last year’s proposal, he wants to “substantially lower” tax rates for individuals by consolidating our existing brackets into two, with a bottom rate of 10 percent and a top rate of 25 percent. What’s more, he wants to reduce the corporate tax rate to 25 percent and end the taxes passed under the Affordable Care Act.

These tax cuts would create a massive revenue hole of trillions of dollars, which is commensurate with Ryan’s previous budgets. In its analysis of the 2013 “Path to Prosperity,” the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities found that the congressman’s tax cuts would cost $6 trillion over the next decade.

There’s no way to plug this hole without substantial cuts to the largest federal programs—Social Security and Medicare—as well as military spending. But Ryan isn’t interested in reducing the Pentagon’s budget and—in the next 10-year window, at least—doesn’t want to touch the two retirement programs. Insofar that Ryan even addresses Social Security, it’s a recommendation that someone, somewhere, develop a plan.

That leaves nondefense discretionary spending—the modest slice that contains our anti-poverty programs—and the Affordable Care Act as the source for cuts, and accordingly Paul Ryan attacks them with a meat cleaver. Over the next 10 years, he cuts $4.3 trillion from this area of the budget. And of that number, more than $3 trillion comes from programs for poor and working-class Americans.

Those cuts include a full repeal of the Obamacare Medicaid expansion and an end to subsidies for the state and federal exchanges, which amounts to a repeal of the law itself. The Medicaid expansion, he writes, “binds the hands of local governments in developing solutions that meet the unique needs of their citizens” and would “exacerbate the crippling one-size-fits-all enrollment mandates” of the current Medicaid program.

States have used the expansion to develop new programs and approaches, but Ryan’s language of devolution has less to do with experimentation and more to do with his ideological commitment to federal block grants, which are central to his vision for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) as well as Temporary Aid for Needy Families (welfare).

In the conservative telling, flexible grants to states—as opposed to federal directives—allow governments to tailor solutions to their needs. But this assumes a political consensus around the welfare state that doesn’t exist. In reality, block grants would allow low-tax, low-service states to slash their benefits even further. As we’ve seen with the Medicaid expansion (which is voluntary), flexibility empowers opponents of social services and harms those who need them most—the majority of people who can’t get coverage under the expansion are low-income blacks and Latinos in the ultra-conservative states of the South and Southwest.

And the exchanges? He sees them as a dangerous stop on the road to a “single-payer system in which the federal government determines how much health care Americans need and what kind of care they can receive.” This, I think, would come as a surprise to actual advocates of single-payer health insurance.

With all of that said, these cuts are less striking than Ryan’s silence on the fate of the uninsured, or the 4.7 to 6.5 million people who have received insurance under the Medicaid expansion, as well as the 7 million people who have enrolled in the private exchanges.

To repeal Obamacare is to yank insurance from these people and throw them—as well as the entire insurance market—into turmoil. It’s a disastrous approach that doesn’t fit with Ryan’s rhetoric on the poor and vulnerable.

The same goes for cuts to food stamps and welfare. If we’ve learned anything since Congress cut SNAP funding, it’s that private organizations aren’t equipped to deal with the level of hunger and need in the United States. Ryan’s budget would exacerbate the problem, pushing even more Americans into poverty and food insecurity.

Given a year’s worth of talk and fanfare over Ryan’s concern for the poor, it’s tempting to think this is an April Fool’s joke; that Ryan will release the “real” budget that holds his much heralded reforms to the welfare state.

But that’s not going to happen. In the real world, the Paul Ryan we know is the same man who launched his career with tirades against the “takers.” Yes, he might care personally for the welfare of low-income Americans, but it doesn’t carry over to public policy. There, his priorities are the same: lower taxes, fewer services, and smaller government.