GOP's real poverty plan: What it truly means when it says "dependency"

Each time the right unveils a “new” effort to combat poverty, it’s laden with the same old (wrong) moral judgments

By Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig

Published November 26, 2013 12:44PM (EST)

Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, Newt Gingrich                   (Reuters/Joe Mitchell/Kevin Lamarque/AP/Michael Conroy)
Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, Newt Gingrich (Reuters/Joe Mitchell/Kevin Lamarque/AP/Michael Conroy)

Much has been made of Paul Ryan’s recent, self-described attempt to win hearts and minds by taking on poverty in the name of the GOP. In a Washington Post profile on the former V.P. nominee (memorably critiqued by Alex Pareene here), readers are promised that Ryan’s mission is “part of a larger effort to revamp the GOP,” which might cause a reasonable person to conclude the plan will feature more than the party’s usual menu of poverty “solutions”: vague and vitiated policies, a focus on scaling assistance programs back rather than up, and an intense and thoroughgoing disdain for poor people.

Instead, rather than introducing anything novel into Republican poverty discourse, Ryan revisits the same old played-out themes: toothless and indefinite policy measures, celebration of voluntary non-governmental poverty relief efforts, and a dedication to ending what Ryan has called a “culture of dependency.”

The old “dependency” saw is a Republican favorite from way back. It’s been harped upon by every Republican blowhard with a platform, and was especially popular during the 2012 Republican primaries, when Newt Gingrich famously decried so-called efforts by “the food stamp president to maximize dependency.” Gingrich, like Ryan, imagines government assistance programs to create disincentives for everything from work to innovation to the pursuit of one’s dreams, which would seem to suggest some kind of interest in the well-being of poor people.

But don’t be fooled: The “dependency” argument, as proposed by the GOP in every venue and format imaginable, is nothing more than thinly veiled scorn for the poor, and suggests a plan for moral discipline, not positive outcomes in the handling of poverty.

That GOP interest in “dependency” is code for some other interest becomes most clear when one considers what the term must actually mean. After all, dependency on the state for one’s allotment of wealth is hardly limited to poor people. Through the use of courts and police to see to the enforcement of contracts, trespassing laws and all other legal measures pertaining to property, the government determines that a person’s wealth will remain under their control. While it’s true that a person fully reliant upon, say, SNAP (the recently reduced Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program also known as food stamps) would be in dire straits if the government suddenly withdrew the legal structures that undergird and fund the program, so too would any wealthy person if the government suddenly refused to authorize police to involve themselves in the protection of private property. It’s legal structuring all the way down, in other words, when it comes to securing all our wealth; this is not limited to poor people using assistance programs.

More intellectually dishonest yet is the GOP tendency to contrast “dependency” with work. Dependent people, they want us to believe, lazily elect to rely on what Republicans depict as a monolithic entitlement structure robust enough to meet all needs indefinitely, thus refusing to work. There is, of course, no such uniform structure. What is typically called “welfare” in public discourse is actually a smattering of different and variably funded individual programs including but not limited to SNAP (“food stamps”), SSDI (“disability) and the EITC (the earned income tax credit). SNAP already features severe restrictions on participation by non-working able-bodied adults without dependents; unsurprisingly, in 2011, 31 percent of households receiving SNAP assistance featured earned income. All people benefiting from the EITC work by definition, and those on SSDI should not be expected to work by definition. Further, SNAP and other patchy assistance programs are notoriously limited in what they can provide, despite GOP efforts to portray them as bottomless wells of cash available to scheming fraudsters. In 2011, the average SNAP benefit per person was roughly $133 monthly, or less than $1.50 per individual per meal.

Given the relative frailty of U.S. assistance programs along with their largely successful built-in measures to encourage work, it is truly puzzling that Republicans nonetheless insist that they create voluntary joblessness and hence “dependency.” The evidence is straightforward: People tend to rely upon assistance programs when they can’t work or can’t find work, or, as in the case of the working poor, when the work that they do does not pay enough to support them and their families. Why, then, do Republicans like Paul Ryan participate in a fantasy of widespread welfare dependency when it comes time to propose policy measures ostensibly aimed at aiding the poor?

This is because “dependency,” for Republicans, is a moral status, not a practical evaluation of a person’s financial circumstances. Since government is inherently coercive and tyrannical in the GOP mind, any positive use of it must actually represent some kind of moral ill. To depend upon the government is, for the GOP, to display an unhealthy alliance with what they imagine to be a bloated and corrupt sort of nanny state, and to relinquish one’s rugged individualism.

Hence the focus on poverty relief strategies that are vaguely defined at best and strategically incapable of accomplishing what they’re reportedly created to do. While Paul Ryan may talk up “volunteerism” – that is, private, spontaneous, individually generated poverty relief efforts – as superior to state programs aimed at poverty relief, we know that private giving has never come close to accomplishing what public assistance programs have in terms of generating assistance funds. In what way, then, can volunteerism be superior to vastly more effective and efficient state poverty relief programs?

For the GOP, the answer is simple: Volunteerism is superior to state assistance programs because it categorically prevents us from being held accountable as a culture for the suffering of our poor. Private giving is a wonderful thing to do, but by its very nature it can be neither guaranteed nor enforced. Republicans are comfortable with this situation, because it ensures that the wealthy will never be pressured in any serious sense to care for the needs of poor people. Supporting a volunteerist approach to poverty relief brings all the praise and warm fuzzy feelings of any crusade against poverty without any of the teeth: if, after the stump speech ends, a candidate decides to give nothing, nobody can do anything about it. The poor remain poor, needs remain unmet, and, perversely, the world is better in the GOP mind-set, because the poor are no longer "dependent" upon government.

If you sense here at least a callous indifference to the lives of poor people, you’ve got it right. The entire “dependency” argument relies at least upon that kind of indifference, and at most upon a more intense spite. Paul Ryan recently said that “spiritual redemption” raises people from poverty, underscoring with brutal clarity that, for the GOP, poverty and dependency represent moral and spiritual failures on the part of the poor rather than on behalf of society as a whole. A spiritual redemption on a much greater order would be required, I expect, to orient Ryan and the GOP’s poverty relief focus where it should be: on the needs of the poor, not the moral aspirations of the rich.

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig

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Editor's Picks Food Stamps Gop Morality Newt Gingrich Paul Ryan Poor People Poverty Snap The Right