Hidden in plain sight: Proof GOP doesn't actually care about the poor

Want to see how Republicans aren't serious about reducing poverty? Look at how they abuse poverty statistics

Published March 4, 2014 4:16PM (EST)

Paul Ryan                                (Reuters/Jose Luis Magaua)
Paul Ryan (Reuters/Jose Luis Magaua)

Every time a Republican wins positive press by posing as a tribune for the poor, an angel gets its wings ripped off by the invisible hand of capitalism, which means today, the day after Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., unveiled a tendentious audit (PDF) of U.S. anti-poverty programs, is an especially gory day.

My colleague Joan Walsh gets at why credulous coverage of Ryan et al. is so frustrating:

"How many times are we going to be told that there’s a “new” Paul Ryan who really, really, really cares about the poor – and whose budget proposals consistently slash programs designed to help them."

This is an especially large challenge because when (likely) future presidential candidates do stuff, reporters can't just ignore them and, anyhow, who's to say Ryan hasn't had a change of heart?

Actually the evidence is right there on the first page of his new report. "Despite trillions of dollars in spending, poverty is widespread," it reads. "In 1965, the poverty rate was 17.3 percent. In 2012, it was 15 percent." Sounds like a huge bust, right?

Except, there's a footnote at the end of that sentence, and it reads, "The Official Poverty Rate does not include government transfers to low-income households."

I'm surprised Ryan included this caveat, even though it's more honest to include it than to leave it out. Because it also reveals that his critique of federal anti-poverty programs is premised on a metric designed to create a false impression that tons of money has been wasted, when really it's done exactly what it was supposed to.

The war on poverty has indeed been a bust if you treat the poor people it's lifted above the federal poverty line as if they remain impoverished. But that's like saying "The earned income tax credit has failed you because, if you don't count the value of the tax credit, you're still in poverty," and then applying the same logic to millions of beneficiaries.

Read this from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities for more on why the war on poverty has actually been a big success, if you measure the impact of the programs that comprise it.

What we have here is confirmation that Ryan's first interest isn't actually improving, modernizing or streamlining anything. If Republicans were serious about making poverty programs better as a goal unto itself, they'd use on-the-level metrics to gauge the success of the programs as they exist today. The only reason to use the one Ryan invokes is to falsely suggest we've been setting trillions of dollars a year on fire, which isn't a pretext first and foremost for reducing poverty but for spending much, much less money on the poor.

By Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at bbeutler@salon.com and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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Earned Income Tax Credit Editor's Picks Eitc Gop Paul Ryan Poverty Statistics The Right War On Poverty