Understanding Rep. Paul Ryan's Poverty Plan, and How We Can Impact the Debate

July 29, 2014
by Meredith Dodson, Director of US Poverty Campaigns, and Kayla Kitson, U.S. Poverty Campaigns Intern

Last Thursday, July 24, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan spoke at the American Enterprise Institute to introduce his new proposal, Expanding Opportunity in America. We wanted to offer a summary of the proposal and thoughts about next steps we can take to further the conversation. 

One key component of the proposal is to consolidate 11 different federal safety-net programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps), Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF, or welfare), housing assistance, and child care assistance (he also proposes to block grant Head Start separately), into a single block grant to states called an “Opportunity Grant.” States would have the flexibility of deciding how to spend the funds, as long as they were targeted at people living in poverty. States would be required to impose work requirements and time limits for people receiving assistance (excepting the elderly and disabled). Initially, this would be a pilot program that states could choose to opt into. The plan is deficit-neutral, so states would initially receive the same amount of funding as they receive now. The danger of this plan is that converting these funding sources into a block grant makes the funding more vulnerable to cuts over time and doesn’t allow it to grow to meet increased need during poor economic times. SNAP, which would make up the largest portion of the Opportunity Grant, is currently an entitlement program, meaning that everyone who is eligible receives benefits, even during recessions when a larger number of people become eligible. If the program were to become a block grant, there would be no guarantee that everyone who is in need would receive this critical benefit. Ryan’s proposal does include several options to allow resources to respond to states’ changing economies, but these options would not be implemented during the pilot program. For more on why the Opportunity Grant proposal would hurt low-income households, see the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for childless workers and lower the eligibility age from 25 to 21. RESULTS supports the expansion of the EITC for childless workers; however, Ryan proposes to pay for this expansion by making the refundable portion of the Child Tax Credit unavailable for millions of low-income children in immigrant families, and by eliminating the Social Services Block Grant and several child nutrition programs. In contrast, President Obama’s proposal to expand the EITC for childless workers would be paid for by closing tax loopholes for corporations and wealthy individuals. See more on the EITC expansion proposal from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

In addition, Rep. Ryan highlighted the need to address the “cliff effect” in some anti-poverty programs, when benefits dramatically drop off with small increases in income. Unfortunately, Rep. Ryan does not propose additional resources to smooth out these cliffs; the cliff effect is particularly dramatic in many states in child care assistance and yet federal funding now only provides child care assistance for one of every seven eligible children, so states struggle to meet current demand much less the additional resources to support families as they transition out of poverty. To read Representative Ryan’s entire proposal, click here (pdf), and we urge you to also read the reactions of anti-poverty leaders including Witness to Hunger Tianna Gaines-Turner on the TalkPoverty.org blog.

TAKE ACTION: Reach out to House and Senate offices to schedule face-to-face lobby meetings during the August recess to share your reaction to Rep. Paul Ryan's proposal. Contact the scheduler for each office this week to see if and when you member of Congress can meet during the August recess. If you have not made a meeting request, use our downloadable meeting request letter or our January 2012 Laser Talk for an example of a phone conversation with a scheduler). The July Action has tips to help with scheduling your meetings. Once you get a meeting scheduled, please contact Meredith Dodson ([email protected]) to strategize on specific lobby requests. And, remember that stories can make a huge impact on policymakers – research shows that stories are up to 22 times more memorable than facts or figures alone.

Next week RESULTS and Circles USA are hosting a training call to help those directly impacted by poverty tell their story – this is a great opportunity to help those with expertise engage in your advocacy. This “Telling Your Story” training call will empower participants to tell their own story to then share with others. The training will be co-lead by RESULTS Director of U.S. Poverty Campaigns Meredith Dodson and LaNae Havens of Circles and RESULTS Albuquerque. LaNae spoke on our RESULTS International Conference last month. LaNae told us about telling her story of being a single mom without enough to make ends to Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM-1) last year. Rep. Lujan Grisham found it so moving, she told LaNae’s story in a House floor speech during the debate to protect SNAP. That’s what these stories can do. We hope you will join this empowering call. The training call is next Tuesday, August 5 at 9:00 pm ET. To participate, dial (712) 432-3100, passcode 761262.

Reach out to potential allies to include in your August lobby meetings. Seek out people who know poverty in your community and ask them to share their story, and join the August 5 training call for ideas of how to tell stories effectively. The July Action has tips to help you do this. Potential allies in your community can include Circles USA affiliatesWitnesses to HungerVoluntary Income Tax Assistance (VITA) programs, food banks and food pantries, Head Start programs, faith communities, etc. All it takes is a phone call to get things started. Offer to visit and speak with someone in these agencies or have coffee with someone to tell them about your work with RESULTS and why you’d like them (or someone they know) to be a part of your August meetings. The worst that can happen is that they say no, so you try again with someone else. As LaNae Havens has said, it wasn’t until she was invited to a RESULTS lobby meeting did she truly understand the power she had to create change. Help others see that power in themselves too.

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