Paul Ryan and the Poor


Watching the proceedings on the floor of the House of Representatives on the occasion of the election and swearing-in of Rep. Paul Ryan (WI-) as the 54th Speaker of the House, one might be convinced that discord had been banished from this hallowed legislative arena and that all is well with at least one chamber of Congress.  I think Rep. Ryan may have gotten more hugs from Democrats than he did from Republicans.  Members from both sides of the aisles greeted the incoming Speaker enthusiastically hoping that the Wisconsin Republican will be the leader who can curtail the rancor in the House and make it more legislatively productive.

That’s a tall order even for someone presidential candidate Mitt Romney declared to be the intellectual leader of the Republican Party.  His party is fractured.  The 40-member Freedom Party believes it has been betrayed by the House leadership which led to the ouster of John Boehner.  Their support of Speaker Ryan is conditional on his support for their policies.  Democrats seem willing to give the new Speaker the benefit of the doubt, but they will not countenance repeated attacks on President Obama.   Outgoing Speaker John Boehner provided Ryan with an extended honeymoon when he ushered through a two-year budget plan at the consternation of the Freedom Caucus and the 167 Republicans who voted against the bill.  Speaker Ryan acknowledged the honeymoon will be brief—“about 35 minutes,” he said during hisMeet The Press interview.

promised changes in procedure.  He says he’s going to wipe the slate clean—that the House will reinstitute “regular order” and give all members a voice in proposing legislation.  Let’s see how that goes.  He promised no changes in policies or politics.  He promised not to work with the President on immigration reform and to continue to undermine the Affordable Care Act.

Speaker Ryan has established a reputation as a policy wonk and economic maven based on several glossy and well-promoted proposals.  His budget 2013 budget proposal The Path to Prosperity was excoriated by Nobel laureate and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman as not a plan but a set of assertions with magic asterisks about trillions that will be saved on to-be-announced spending cuts.  He was clear about what he would cut: Medicaid by turning it into a block grant, Medicare by transforming it into a voucher program, and taxes for corporations and the wealthy.  The National Journal rates him as the most conservative speaker in history.

Paul Ryan’s elevation to Speaker does not bode well for the poor in this country.  During a recent hearing of the House Budget Committee, conservative philosophy reverberated throughout testimony and remarks: poor people can only be helped by removing government assistance that erodes their motivation to be personally responsible.  Last year Rep. Ryan released his vaulted plan to help the nation’s poor, Expanding Opportunity in America, that Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) said would likely increase poverty and reduce resources for the poor.

In the long run, Speaker Paul Ryan may have been right when he flatly turned down the job when it was first offered.  In his new position, he must face the public—something he has not done well in the past.  Remember not long ago he was completely overwhelmed by Vice President Joe Biden during the 2012 vice presidential debate.  Sooner or later the Speaker must give straight answers.  He will have to provide specifics about the policies.  During his Meet The Pressinterview, moderator Chuck Todd repeatedly pressed him for one idea he would advance as Speaker.  Ryan would only say that Republicans would no longer be timid about their policies but will be offering a bold agenda.  As chair of the Ways and Means Committee, Paul Ryan has spent the last year working on tax reform yet he could not or would not offer one specific item that he would promote as the new leader of the House Republican Caucus.

I do not want to be a hater, and I sincerely hope Paul Krugman, Bob Greenstein and a host of others are wrong about the new Speaker.  I really hope those Democrat who recalled how much they enjoyed working with him are spot on.  I sincerely hope he proves me wrong.  But my guess is the months leading up to November 2016 are going to be pretty ugly.

The New Koch: Anyone Buying?

Charles and David Koch

Back in April of 1985, the Coca Cola Company sensing a decline in its leading share of the cola market, tried to rebrand its soft drink by tweaking the secret formula that had been successful for nearly a century. Thus we got the “New Coke.” Unfortunately, consumers were not convinced that the New Coke was better than the old Coke. In fact, they saw through the marketing ploy and demanded that the Coca Cola revert to its true self. Less than three months later, Coca Cola began restocking shelves with what became classic Coke.

Now, it seems Charles and David Koch (pronounced “coke”) have grown weary of their characterization as villains. They are tired of being viewed as fat cats who are making a mockery of our election process by spending millions to support Republican candidates who have become the pawns of the rich and well-to-do—the job creators.

Supply-side Republican tax policies have been very favorable to the rich while efforts to shrink government by scaling back resources for social welfare programs have hurt the middle class and the both the working and non-working poor. Reductions in Pell grants make it harder for middle and low-income families to afford college education. Assaults on unions and a 16-year freeze on the minimum wage have exacerbated wage stagnation.

So during their retreat last weekend in Dana Point, California, the Koch brothers began their campaign to rebrand as champions of the poor—zeroing in on criminal justice reform as a particular concern. Fellow donors and beneficiaries like the five Republican presidential candidates attending the retreat embraced this new brand of Koch. But will it sell to the general public? United Negro College Fund (UNCF) president Michael Lomax warmed up to the brothers last year when he accepted $25 million from them. Former Obama administration official Van Jones became another strange bedfellow when he teamed up with the Koch brothers to push for passage of the SAFE Justice Act.

frabz-The-Media-mentions-koch-brothers-I-picture-Randolph-and-Mortimer-16c057The Koch brothers would like us to believe that policies promoted by the Cato Institute—the think tank they created—have negligible negative impact on the poor and middle class but are advancing their principles of limited government.

For them and other patrons of Ayn Rand, smaller government means more freedom. Taken to its logical extreme—the smallest government results in the greatest freedom—but for whom?

They would have us accept that unfettered, unregulated capitalism would create a more just society, but only if you buy into social Darwinism and have no problem discarding the poor and less fortunate.

It’s the kind of thinking that empowered anti-tax maven Grover Norquist who said he did not want to abolish government but to “get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” Depriving the government of revenue would surely shrink it.

Norquist’s organization Americans for Tax Reform boasts on its website that nearly 1400 elected officials—including 49 Senators and 221 Members of the House of Representative—have signed the Taxpayer Protection Pledge—avowing not to raise taxes. It is a silly pledge. The cost of living does not stop increasing because taxes are frozen. The population continues to grow and our infrastructure continues to wear down.

Then, there are those annoying expenses like war. The idea of conflating smaller government and freedom doesn’t wash. Dictators can have small governments. The government should be as large as needed to efficiently promote the general welfare. Libertarians and conservatives believe government assistance promotes dependency and makes us slaves of the government.

The purpose of the pledge was to reduce government revenue until there was little choice but to begin dismantling the welfare state through block granting of social service programs and attacking the solvency of Social Security and Medicare. It’s not about freedom; it’s about ideology.

The results have been disastrous. By not taking in adequate revenue through taxes, future generations will be saddled with 18 trillion dollars in debt and counting. Our system of government is corrupt beyond belief because the wealthy are able to finance policies that increase their wealth.

Economic inequality is off the charts. Millions of Americas, particularly children languish in poverty with minimal hopes of escaping. Thousands forgo college because of the enormous expense and concomitant burden of student loan debt. Who knows what inventions and cures are being lost because we live in a society where only the haves can optimize their talents and skills.

The new Coke was a flash in the pan, and I am not buying the new Koch either. We’ve seen this before with compassionate conservatism. It has a nice ring to it, but it’s the same old song.

Social Work and the Welfare State

As a social worker on the Hill, I have had a front row seat during battles over the welfare state. Usually, the main combatants are Republican conservatives who continue their relentless quest to reduce government’s involvement in providing for indigent Americans and Democratic progressives who believe government must be involved to ensure an adequate safety net. Conservatives want relief for the poor and disabled left to private charity. They believe citizens should not be taxed to provide welfare and other social services and should be allowed to willfully give a portion of their earnings and resources to private caregiving entities. They view the welfare state as an unlawful transfer of wealth—taking from those who worked hard to be successful and giving to people who lack the motivation and drive to do for themselves. They believe providing unemployment insurance to laid-off workers reduces their incentive to go out and find another job. They believe individual effort—personal responsibility—should be the driving force of a healthy economy.

Progressives on the other hand believe society is strongest when people work together to achieve common purposes. Jared Bernstein characterizes this debate as YOYO vs. WITT—“you’re on your own” vs. “we’re in this together”. Somehow, I believe there is more to that phrase in the Constitution’s preamble—promote the general welfare—than just providing security and an orderly society. I believe the founders had to believe in a “we’re in this together” philosophy because they knew cooperation was needed as much as competition to ensure progress. You only need to look at Congress today to understand how dysfunctional competition is without compromise.

After centuries of leaving poverty to private charity, we got the English Poor Laws. The economic crash of 1929 and the Great Depression forced the federal government to intervene in order to keep many Americans from starving. Since then we have been in this endless battle to define the parameters of the welfare state. Conservatives have been working nonstop to rollback New Deal policies. They would like to see the privatization of Social Security and the elimination of unions and other collective bargaining efforts. Progressives have been hard at work protecting safety net programs—preventing the block granting of social welfare programs, fighting against cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps. All the while the economy is spiraling out of control in the favor of the wealthiest Americans. The top 0.1 percent of American families now own as much as the bottom 90 percent.



Economic inequality is the mother of the modern day welfare state. Even conservatives are beginning to understand this. Arthur Brooks, president of the free enterprise promoting think tank the American Enterprise Institute, recently declared that it was time for conservatives to make peace with the welfare state—a startling comment from a hard line conservative. My guess is that he understands it is the price that must be paid for such a high level of economic inequality. In a society where income is distributed more equally, there would be a larger middle class which existed in the middle of the last century. There would be more people working because we would have more consumers with more disposable income. We would have less people needing food stamps and less people would be eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit.

So, where should social workers stand on the welfare state? We should of course fight to ensure there is an adequate social safety net, but at the same time we should be looking for ways to reduce the number of people who depend on a social safety net which requires a more fair and equitable society—concepts that are foreign to conservatives. Those of us—social workers—who take seriously the profession’s commitment to social justice are the best hope for the poor and middle class. However, if we are not able to present a compelling vision about how we become a more just society then we will spend all of our energy trying to protect a burgeoning social welfare safety net.

Democrats lost big time in the midterm elections not because of the low voter turnout. They should not expect better results in 2016 because the composition of the electorate will be more in their favor. Democrats lost because they failed to present ideas to the American people about how progressive policies would make their lives and their children’s lives better. Had they been able to articulate a path to a more just and equitable society, voter turnout would not have been a problem.

Politician’s Comments on Disabled People Further Proves Welfare Reform Is Driven by Ideology

When David Freud stated that some disabled people were “not worth” the minimum wage, he was not saying this for shock effect. It was said in earnest at a fringe meeting at the Tory Party Conference. Furthermore, Lord Freud is not a mere back bench Conservative politician making bizarre and infuriating comments about a subject that does not concern him; rather, David Freud is the shadow minister for welfare in the House of Lords and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

disabledThe man in charge of policy related to disabled people in Britain has openly said that some people with mental disabilities could be paid as little as £2 an hour. Further proof, as if any was needed, that the austerity measures and welfare reforms put in place by this Government are not borne out of necessity but rather an ideological disdain for the poor, sick and vulnerable.

After numerous calls for his resignation, Freud issued a “full and unreserved apology.” He added that he cares “passionately about disabled people” and he is “proud to have played a part in a government that is fully committed to helping disabled people overcome the many barriers they face in finding employment.”

This supposed care for disabled people would be slightly more believable if this Government hadn’t been responsible for a 65% increase in the number of disabled people having their benefits sanctioned, resulting in them having to live without money for weeks or months on end.

It would also be more believable if this Government had not implemented the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) which has been deemed incredibly stressful and humiliating by numerous disabled charities. And it would be more believable that this Government “cared passionately” about disabled people if, when entering Government in 2009, they hadn’t arbitrarily decided to cut the amount spent on Disability Benefits (DLA) by 20%.

The Coalition Government are responsible for manufacturing propaganda about disabled people being “scroungers’” suggesting that most people claiming disability benefits merely have “bad backs.” The Tories decision to cut DLA in response to the supposed “inexplicable” rise in the number of disabled claimants, completely ignores the fact that there has been a real growth in the number of people with learning disabilities and more premature babies are surviving but with disabilities. Also, after reforms in Case Law, more people suffering from mental illness began claiming DLA. There are legitimate reasons for the rise in claimants, but the Government willingly choose to ignore them in order to push their hateful and callous rhetoric.

Not only has this Government damaged the economic life of disabled people, but their fact less mantra about disability claimants has led to an increase in the abuse of disabled people. The charities Scope, Mencap, Leonard Cheshire Disability, the National Autistic Society, Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), and Disability Alliance all say that ministers and civil servants repeated highlighting of the supposed mass abuse of the disability benefits system has led to two-thirds of people with disabilities saying they had experienced recent hostility or taunts and that attitudes towards them have deteriorated since 2010.

There is strong dissonance between the Government’s actions and the Government’s words. Lord Freud may maintain that he “cares passionately” about people with disabilities but he and his party have done nothing but act to the contrary.

Aside from the fact that the minimum wage (£6.50) in Britain is still not considered to be a Living Wage, we have to decide whether we want to live in a country where we recognize effort expended or outcome achieved. Defenders of Freud’s comments have argued that some people are genuinely “not worth the minimum wage” because they cannot work as efficiently or effectively as non-disabled employees. It simply isn’t considered good business.

I do not want to live in a country where my child who is born with a disability, through no fault of their own, has to struggle every day with the physical pain and social stigma of that disability. Then, he/she is told that no matter how hard they work their effort does not guarantee them any security from poverty. I do not believe that Britons value profit over people, so let’s look at this from a rather simplistic analogy.

Imagine a coffee shop where you are the Manager. You hire one member of staff without a disability (Emma) and one member of staff with a learning disability (Jane). Over the course of the day, Emma can make 100 cups of coffee, whereas Jane can only make 50. Emma and Jane both work equally hard and are pleasant and reliable employees. If you hired two Emma’s you could sell 200 cups of coffee a day. However, if you continue to hire Jane, you are creating a society in which people with disabilities are treated equally with dignity and respect. By hiring Jane you are promoting her sense of freedom, preventing her from developing depression due to social isolation and de-stigmatizing learning disabilities. As an employee do you want to invest in equality and humanity or 50 more cups of coffee?

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