Economy & Budget

Paul Ryan rewrites 50 years of poverty history

Greg Nash

In his speech to the Republican National Convention last week, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) rewrote a 50-year history of poverty in America. The Republican from Wisconsin claims a special passion for the subject, and he is often cited in the media as a thoughtful proponent of policies intended to raise the poor into the middle class.

In a season of angry GOP rhetoric, Ryan delivered perhaps the most temperate fact-challenged speech of the convention. This is more than damning with faint praise. Trumpism is characterized by a lack of concern for facts and a visceral appeal to emotions. This is widely known and expected. Ryan, on the other hand, has a reputation for being bound, to a degree, by fact.

He was not so constrained, however, in making his case against Democratic approaches to fighting poverty when he said that progressives “like to talk forever about poverty in America, and if high-sounding talk did any good, we’d have overcome those deep problems long ago. This explains why under the most liberal president we’ve had so far, poverty in America is worse.”

So, to whom is Ryan referring as “the most liberal president we’ve had so far”? (We’ll assume he’s confining himself to the past 50 years or so.)

Without a doubt, the consensus choice would be Lyndon B. Johnson, author of the War on Poverty. He championed seminal antipoverty programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, Head Start and Legal Services Corp., while expanding Social Security benefits for retirees, widows and the disabled — in other words, the Great Society programs Republicans have been trying to dismantle for 35 years.

But Ryan is not attacking LBJ. His target is President Obama, whom many liberals would not consider one of their own. Even his signature achievement, ObamaCare, has its roots in conservative, market-oriented orthodoxy. Obama has governed as a moderate, much to the disappointment of many liberals. But calling him the second-most liberal president wouldn’t suit Ryan’s purposes.

Is Ryan correct that poverty is worse under Obama than it has been under other presidents of the past 50 years?

Poverty rates during his administration peaked in 2011 before falling to 15.3 percent in 2014, the latest year for which Census data is available. They’ve probably continued to decline in 2015 and 2016 as the economy has expanded and anti-poverty programs enacted during his presidency took effect, including tax breaks for poor and middle-class families and ObamaCare’s health insurance subsidies.

So, how does Obama’s record stack up against the records of other presidents of the past five decades? In short, peak poverty rates have been lower than they were under Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and higher than under Gerald Ford and George W. Bush.

Johnson and Nixon inherited their peak rates from the long history of poverty over previous decades. Both presidents produced sharp reductions in the ranks of the poor thanks to strong economic growth and Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Poverty rose during the Carter and George H.W Bush presidencies, partially as a consequence of their economic and budgetary policies, while rates at the beginning and end of the Reagan administration were unchanged.

Enactment of the earned income tax credit and strong economic growth during Clinton’s presidency contributed to the most dramatic decline in poverty since the Great Society, while George W. Bush turned in the worst performance among the nine presidents, with poverty rising in five of his eight years in the White House.

All told, over the course of the past 50 years, poverty rates declined 7.4 percent under the four Democrats and rose 2.7 percent under the five Republicans.

Republicans reject this evidence in predicable ways. They claim the comparisons are flawed because the conditions each administration inherited affected their economic performance. True, but that works both ways. Or they claim the Census methodology is flawed and that Democratic presidents manipulate the data to hide their policy failures. But Republicans use Census data when it suits their purposes, and if Democratic presidents manipulate the data, why wouldn’t Republican presidents do so, too?

No, Republicans reject the data because they tell an inconvenient story. The failure of anti-poverty policies belongs to Republican supply-side tax and starve-the-beast budget policies, not ObamaCare and Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Ryan says his policy agenda is shaped “using my Catholic faith.” If he decries “high-sounding talk” of progressives, then what does he make of the injunctions in the Sermon on the Plain? After all, a sermon is only words. Even when the Rabbi fed the 5,000 through the miracle of the loaves and fishes, he hardly made a dent in the “deep problems” of poverty. But he fed them nonetheless. “The poor you will always have with you,” he said, so he might have been skeptical of Ryan’s expectation that we could “overcome” poverty.

The Christ of Paul Ryan’s Catholic faith also had a suggestion for how to identify those who live the values he taught, values such as charity, mercy and peacemaking. “By their fruit will you recognize them.” He knew talk is cheap.

*This analysis is based on the Census Bureau’s supplemental poverty measure (SPM), which, in addition to income, includes government benefits such as nutritional assistance, subsidized housing, home energy assistance and income tax credits. The SPM was developed as an alternative to the Census Bureau’s official poverty measure, which underestimates poverty and the effect of antipoverty programs on poverty rates since the 1960s.

Diehl is a former chief of staff of the U.S. Treasury Department, director of the U.S. Mint and staff director of the Senate Finance Committee.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Tags Bill Clinton Paul Ryan

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