Yesterday, the House Budget Committee (Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., chairman) released a report on the War on Poverty [PDF], nearly fifty years after Lyndon Johnson announced that war and sharply increased the amount of federal assistance available to needy American families. Weighing in at more than 205 pages, the report is a partisan exercise designed to assist the GOP in dismantling anti-poverty programs.
That being said, the report contains a surprising piece of honesty from people who are usually deeply dishonest when it suits them to be. (You may recall that during the 2012 election campaign, Rep. Ryan, who was his party's nominee for Vice President, and his family went to a soup kitchen for a photo opportunity, only to find that they had arrived too late to provide any assistance with serving food or cleaning up. But they had to do something, so they proceeded to roll up their sleeves and re-wash dishes and serving trays so that the press would have something to photograph.)
Ryan was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Like many people who were born into wealth, in the memorable words of Barry Switzer, he was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple. His tenure as the GOP's go-to guy on budget issues has been marked by a desperate desire to dismantle pretty much everything the federal government does to alleviate poverty. A disciple of Ayn Rand, Ryan is a True Believer when it comes to the breathtakingly sociopathic worldview Rand espoused (except, of course, when she was facing cancer and poverty in her old age and applied for Social Security and Medicare benefits she built a career railing against).
A key point of Ryan's argument is that social welfare programs are expensive and don't work. I'll grant that they are expensive, but they constitute spending that is far more beneficial to a broader swath of society than are, for example, bank bailouts--which Ryan apparently has little problem with.
In the Budget Committee report, Ryan notes that the poverty rate in 1964--before Medicare and Medicaid and a host of other programs--was 17.3%. Today, he notes, the poverty rate stands at 15% (and as you dig deeper into the report, you can see that the rate has varied between 11% and 15% based upon the general economy).
Sounds like not much bang for the buck.
It turns out that Ryan's report includes a footnote that contains a pretty tough qualification of that statistic. Right there in the introduction, in footnote 2, the committee notes that the official poverty rate does not include welfare payments and benefits received.
When you factor in those payments and benefits, it turns out that the people who actually live below the poverty line are a lot fewer in number. One study quoted in an appendix to the report suggests that the actual poverty rate is about 4.5% when government programs are factored in--and that the figure 50 years ago would have been about 30.9%.
We can disagree about where we go from here, and about what steps we should take to deal with the problem of persistent poverty. But the takeaway from this report is clear: Federal anti-poverty programs work to reduce poverty in a significant way.
And the fact that even Ryan's committee acknowledges that point ought to be headline news.