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Former House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) has been dreaming of cutting Medicaid since he was a college student “drinking out of kegs,” and after a brief 10-month hiatus away from Washington D.C., the 2016 vice presidential candidate is back in the swamp, this time with a foundation focusing on welfare policy funded with the $7 million leftover from his congressional war chest.
Ryan, who in 2017 spearheaded the $1.5 trillion Republican tax cut, said that he had “begun convincing” President Donald Trump to cut Medicare and other entitlement programs to pay down the national debt shortly before announcing his departure as Speaker of the House. The stated focus of his new nonprofit, the American Idea Foundation, to fight poverty and boost opportunity by promoting “evidence-based” reforms on welfare, is likely in line with that ethos.
The foundation cites former President Bill Clinton’s welfare reform act, which created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), as its shining beacon.
“The single most successful domestic policy reform of the last 30 years was welfare reform,” the foundation’s website states. “This singular success in getting millions of Americans back into lives of self-sufficiency began with the lessons learned through years of experimentation at the state level.”
TANF is a temporary welfare program that only delivers aid to families for 60 months and requires recipients to acquire work quickly to continue receiving benefits. Other programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as SNAP, or food stamps) are considered entitlement programs, meaning they’re available to anyone who needs food assistance in the U.S. for as long as they need that help.
Poverty experts argue that TANF (a grant fund given to states to aid needy families with monetary assistance as well as through programs that promote work and aim to prevent of out of wedlock pregnancies and marriage) has been largely unhelpful to families in poverty and that it should not be used as a guideline for future anti-poverty initiatives.
“As someone who has spent my career fighting to stop poverty, I must say that few things keep me up at night as much as Paul Ryan fighting to advance his poverty agenda,” said Rebecca Vallas, senior fellow and co-creator of the Poverty to Prosperity program at the Center for American Progress. “TANF is quite simply a cautionary tale for poverty policy and nothing more abject failure. It has become such a pitiful shell of a program.”
TANF has been funded at the same $16.5 billion per year for more than two decades without any adjustment for inflation or population growth. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that as a result, the program has lost about one-third of its value as a poverty-prevention program.
Today, less than one in four families living below the poverty line receive help through the program, compared to 8 out of 10 who did immediately following the program’s implementation. SNAP, meanwhile, currently aids about 8 out of every 10 eligible households. While in office, Ryan worked hard to limit SNAP benefits, but was ultimately defeated in his efforts.
Modern programs like unemployment insurance and SNAP are programs designed to kick in during hard economic times like the great recession, but TANF helped just 16% more families between the beginning of the most recent recession and December of 2010, even though the unemployment rate increased by 88%.
“I think [Ryan] knows full well that TANF is an excellent model for destroying effective anti-poverty programs,” said Vallas. “He knows that cutting effective and popular programs like food stamps and Medicaid will never be successful, and so he’s pretending to help families and packaging proposals that will hoodwink the American public into thinking he’s fighting poverty.”
It’s difficult to assess how successful TANF has been because there is little accountability and required reporting mechanism for states that receive the block grant. While states are not allowed to provide parents in need of assistance with more than four weeks of consecutive job search help and preparation, they’re also not required to actually find recipients paying jobs to meet requirements to receive funds.
There are very few federally mandated rules about how the block grants must be spent. Only $1 out of every $4 given to states by TANF actually goes to needy families. It’s unclear where the rest of the money goes. About 95% of the funds for SNAP benefits, meanwhile, go to families in need.
The idea of advocating for block grants like TANF instead of entitlement programs and food stamps makes Ife Floyd, senior policy analyst focusing on family income support at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “very, very nervous.” TANF, she said, “has not improved circumstances,” for poor Americans.
Representative and former 2020 presidential candidate Tim Ryan (D-Oh.) believes that Paul Ryan could be using his leftover funds to promote healthy food programs around the country instead of focusing on the TANF policy.
“If you’re basing your anti-poverty model on 1997 ideology, are you going to back to rotary phone and horse and buggy? This is a mistake,” Ryan said.
Representative Ryan believes that Paul Ryan’s power in Washington “has kind of faded away” but thinks he may be plotting a return to power.
“He is close with [former Vice President] Mike Pence, so if something happens to Trump he might be back in the game,” he said.
Still, he’s not worried. He thinks that Americans have moved past the former speaker’s selective austerity. “A lot of people in D.C. hear Paul Ryan, who I like by the way, say we need to get rid of deficits after passing $1.5 trillion in tax cuts and are tired of that disconnect from reality,” he said.
Progressive Representative Ro Khanna (D-Cali.) also agreed that Paul Ryan quickly lost relevance in D.C. His ideas around welfare and tax cuts, which once set the tone for national policy, he said, “haven’t left much of a footprint on Congress where there’s been a clear rejection of the austerity politics he advocated for. Even Trump was shrewd enough to run away from Ryan’s agenda.” If Ryan is going to be “recycling ideas from the 1990s about austerity, that’s not going to gain traction with Democrats or Republicans.”
But advocates for social security and Medicare warn not to underestimate Ryan.
“He spent his entire career trying to steal our earned benefits: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid,” said Alex Lawson, director of Social Security Works. “From an ideological perspective, he’ll do whatever it takes to sell the idea and get it across the finish line. You’ve seen this his entire career, it doesn’t matter what mask he puts on it, we know what he wants to do.”
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