The big new poverty report from the House committee led by Representative Paul Ryan is yet another con job.
Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. So when you see something like the current scramble by Republicans to declare their deep concern for America’s poor, it’s a good sign, indicating a positive change in social norms. Goodbye, sneering at the 47 percent; hello, fake compassion.
And the big new poverty report from the House Budget Committee, led by Representative Paul Ryan, offers additional reasons for optimism. Mr. Ryan used to rely on “scholarship” from places like the Heritage Foundation. Remember when Heritage declared that the Ryan budget would reduce unemployment to a ludicrous 2.8 percent, then tried to cover its tracks? This time, however, Mr. Ryan is citing a lot of actual social science research.
Unfortunately, the research he cites doesn’t actually support his assertions. Even more important, his whole premise about why poverty persists is demonstrably wrong.
To understand where the new report is coming from, it helps to recall something Mr. Ryan said two years ago: “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.” There are actually two assertions here. First, antipoverty programs breed complacency; that is, they discourage work. Second, complacency — the failure of the poor to work as much as they should — is what perpetuates poverty.
The budget committee report is almost entirely concerned with the first assertion. It notes that there has been a large decline in labor force participation, and it claims that antipoverty programs, which reduce the incentive to work, are a major reason for this decline. Then come 200 pages of text and 683 footnotes, designed to create the impression that the scholarly research literature supports the report’s claims.
But it doesn’t. In some cases, Mr. Ryan and colleagues outright misstate what the research says, drawing outraged protests from a number of prominent scholars about the misrepresentation of their work. More often, however, the report engages in argument by innuendo. It makes an assertion about the bad effects of a program, then mentions a number of studies of that program, and thereby leaves the impression that those studies support its assertion, even though they don’t.