By Jailyn Gladney
Late last week, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) presented a plan–Expanding Opportunity in America–to entirely restructure our nation’s safety net. His plan demands that federal aid be “both more accountable and more effective”, but his plans are a recipe to exacerbate poverty and inequality. While Representative Ryan claims his plan is deficit-neutral, that doesn’t square with his budget proposal, which gets two-thirds of its cuts to programs helping low and moderate income people.
Expanding Opportunity in America rests on offering states the option of opting into a pilot program under which they would can consolidate social programs into block grants with funds that can be used at each individual states’ own discretion. He cites the transition from the Aid to Families with Dependent Children cash assistance program to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grants in 1996 as a successful model that motivated his current reform proposal. Yet, what Rep. Ryan’s proposal fails to address is that, similar to the case with TANF, block granting often greatly reduces the number of people that receive aid when they most need it. Between 1997, one year after TANF was created, and 2011, the number of TANF recipients declined rapidly by 50 percent from 3.94 million families to 1.95 million families receiving assistance per month. Because states are incentivized to reduce the number of TANF recipients, these numbers have continued to drop precipitously. TANF is a precautionary tale.
Ryan’s Expanding Opportunity in America safety net reform plan calls for the consolidation of programs such as Head Start and the Child Care Development Fund which both aid in reducing the costs of childcare and education for low-income families. Thousands of children of color benefit from programs like Head Start –during the 2012-2013 school year, 58 percent of Head Start students were children of color— which promotes school readiness in children from birth to 5 years old by providing nutritional, health, social and other services. These types of programs are especially important for children of color who are disproportionately impacted by educational disparities. Cuts to programs like Head Start would likely result in negative, and long-lasting effects on the future success of these children.
The Child Care Development Fund reduces child care costs for low-income families, thereby allowing low-income parents the flexibility to work or further their education. . In 2010 families across the nation on average, spent more on child care for their infants than they did on food. In nearly half of states, families spent more on child care than they did on rent. Without the assistance that the Child Care Development Fund offers, low-income parents of color who already have lower levels of employment and educational attainment, will have limited access and resources to work and further their education, obstructing low-income families’ path to the middle class.
In the proposal, Rep. Ryan applauds the SKILLS Act, which will destroy 15 existing job training programs as well as reform Job Corps. Job Corps, an education and vocational training program for disadvantaged youth ages 16 through 24 seeks to “improve the quality of their lives through vocational and academic training”. This is particularly important for this age cohort of young people whose unemployment is more than twice the national rate. For black youth, the rate is even higher and hovers around 21.4 percent. Job Corps serves precisely this demographic with three-quarters of its participants being youth of color in 2008: 52 percent African American, 17.39 percent Hispanic, 3 percent American India, and 2.3 percent Asian American and Pacific Islander. Rep. Ryan’s Job Corps reform specifically again entails the consolidation of programs—the Jobs Corps program along with the Work Investment Youth Act Program, and State Vocational Rehabilitation Grants—into a block grant which states would use to design their own programs, a move which could potentially reduce aid to those who need it most. The possible reduction of the Job Corps program under Ryan’s proposal is contrary to the success of the program: Jobs Corps has substantially increased the education and training services that youths receive, improved their educational attainment, improved literacy, increased their productivity and reduced their use of public assistance.
Given the evidence, why does Rep. Ryan’s proposal target Job Corps? Based on data from nearly two decades ago in a Mathematica Policy Research Inc. study for the US Department of Labor, Ryan claims the program “has produced more costs than benefits for students overall”. But even the authors of the study suggest their data may no longer be applicable today as a justification to reduce funding to this program that greatly benefit communities of color. In fact, the study’s authors make this important statement: “We emphasize that the findings presented in this report pertain to the Job Corps program as it operated in 1995 and 1996 (when our program group members were enrolled in Job Corps) and not necessarily to the program as it operates today. There have been a number of changes that Job Corps has recently implemented…These changes may have improved program effectiveness”. And while Rep. Ryan’s proposal includes some plans that will help disproportionately help workers of color, such as expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for childless adults, Ryan’s EITC expansion plan is paid for through cuts to programs helping low-income people. One such program he plans to reduce is the Additional Child Tax Credit through mandating the use of Social Security numbers—a change which disproportionately impacts children of color, particularly Latino children, who are more likely to live in poverty than other children.
Rep. Ryan’s new proposal seems to be a newly packaged version of the program cut proposals he has already put forth. His vision for consolidated safety net programs in the form of block grants will very likely widen the holes in the American safety net that many families of color– whose poverty rates are much higher than the national average– are already falling through. The “consolidation” of social programs that Rep. Ryan suggests has a high likelihood of only deepening the poverty of not only adults, but of the more than 16 million children who already live in poverty. For the one in three children of color and their families who currently live in poverty, Rep. Ryan offers a grim future. Contrary to actions such as raising the minimum wage for the millions of Americans in poverty, or supporting high quality early childhood education, Ryan’s Expanding Opportunity in America plan will likely reduce programs that help low and middle income Americans with childcare, education, and aid job growth. For low-wage or middle class Americans, particularly communities of color, his plan offers little in the way of the expansion of opportunity that the title of his program seems to promise.