The top House Republican tried to lecture a nun at his town hall about how he has to cut programs for the poor for their own good. Nobody bought it.
One of the most awkward exchanges came when Ryan took a question from Sister Erica Jordan, a Dominican nun and retired school principal who wanted to know why Ryan’s actions in Congress run so contrary to what the Church teaches about looking after the poor:
SISTER JORDAN: I know that you’re a Catholic, as am I. And it seems to me that most of the Republicans in the Congress are not willing to stand with the poor and working class, as evidenced in the recent debates about health care and the anticipated tax reform. So I’d like to ask how you see yourself upholding the Church’s social teaching that has the idea that God is always on the side of the poor and dispossessed, as should we be.
After blustering and throwing around a lot of buzzwords, Ryan gave this answer:
RYAN: We’re in the 32nd year of the “war on poverty,” trillions spent, and guess what? Our poverty rates are about the same as when we started this war on poverty 32 years ago. So the status quo isn’t working, Sister. And what I think we need to do is change our approach on fighting poverty. Instead of measuring success based on how much money we spend or how many programs we create or how many people are on those programs, you know, measuring inputs, let’s measure success on poverty on outcomes. Is it working? Are people getting out of poverty? And what I believe, when you look at it that way, I actually have a commission Patty Murray and I set up that’s underway right now to focus on these measurements, we need to make sure that we bring people into the workforce. The poor are being marginalized and misaligned, in many ways because a lot of the programs that we have, well-intentioned as they may be, are discouraging and disincentivizing work.
Ryan’s answer was met with furious boos and shouting from the audience, and for good reason. Not only was he speaking to this retired educator and woman of faith like she was an idiot, but everything he said was a bald-faced lie.
To begin with, the “war on poverty” — which began in 1964 and not 1985, as Ryan claims — in fact resulted in a substantial drop in poverty rates. When President Lyndon Johnson signed Medicare, Medicaid, federal housing programs, and other various welfare expansions into law, the poverty rate was 19 percent. Today, it is 13.5 percent, almost a one-third reduction. At no point since 1964 has it ever gone back above 15.2 percent.
In fact, the official poverty rate may understate the decrease, because it leaves out several forms of government assistance, like tax credits, and is based on the cost of buying necessities in 1955. An alternate calculation that factors in all transfer payments and living expenses, called the supplemental poverty rate, shows an even bigger drop since the 60s — from 26 percent to 14.3 percent.
Ryan’s claim that fixing poverty is a matter of “bringing people into the workforce” is equally disingenuous. Simply making sure everyone has a job is not a magic bullet. Nearly half of all homeless adults are working. Further, 59 percent of adults and 78 percent of households on Medicaid are working. Many working people cannot afford basic necessities because Ryan and his Republican cohorts refuse to raise the minimum wage.
Finally, Ryan’s tired line about welfare “discouraging and disincentivizing work” is a repeatedly debunked myth. Very few welfare programs in the U.S. simply give people cash for free. Most, like TANF and the Earned Income Tax Credit, have work requirements. The few that do not, like SNAP and Medicaid, are for basics like health care and food without which some people would not be able to work at all.
All told, Ryan responded to Sister Jordan with a series of paternalistic lies — and the angry reaction from his constituents proves that they are not buying it. Ryan can no longer coast on flimsy falsehoods and stereotypes about poverty and work, and as speaker of the House, he needs the intellectual courage to face reality.