Congressman Ryan and the Ending of Poverty

Remember poor Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) who had the misfortunate to explain high levels of male inner-city poverty by a weak work ethic? He was, of course, excoriated for his heretical opinion, forced to apologize to the Congressional Black Caucus and quickly claimed that he was misunderstood. Well, he’s back and has learned a painful lesson when honestly addressing poverty.  

In a 73 page report, Expanding Opportunity in America Ryan offers a statistics-laden, heavily footnoted blueprint to uplift the destitute by returning policy-making to the states and localities, increasing accountability, and upping fiscal monitoring, all the while being more flexible and innovative.  It is a catalogue of wonkish cures touching on education, family life, criminal justice and job training, all of it high-sounding and decorated with lots of tables and charts.

Ryan’s dense report is probably DOA but its very existence vis-à-vis his earlier inflammatory “no work ethic” analysis illustrates a fundamental but awkward reality: when it comes to curing America’s woes, never propose anything that will require people to alter their behavior. Instead focus only on what government can bestow. The venerable adage “God helps those who help themselves” has been replaced by “Washington must help those who refuse to help themselves.” Imagine if modern medicine took this path -- Washington would spend billions on healthcare without requiring patients to change diets, exercise, visit doctors for regular check-ups or exerting any other unwanted effort, all the while all benefits are “free.”

Consider, for example, Ryan’s new “no pain, all gain” solution to hardcore unemployment. It’s entirely about administrative tinkering -- consolidating today’s 47 job-training programs in nine different agencies to save money while allowing bureaucrats additional flexibility (pp. 51-3) but only if states “ show results” in exchange for greater leeway. That’s it. Absolutely nothing about why chronic unemployment still persists or expensive past failures; reform is exclusively about bureaucratic streamlining and trimming costs. This is 100% racism-free proposal that will hardly offend those who prefer indolence. Bloated bureaucracy is the culprit, not lazy people. What a wonderfully safe way to demonstrate “compassion”!

Now imagine that Congressman Ryan decided to leave public service in a year or two and thus was able to speak honestly. He’d probably begin by recognizing that lots of decent-paying jobs exist, but many on the dole just are unwilling or unable to get them, often due -- you will recall -- to terrible work habits. So, instead of bureaucratic tinkering, in this imaginary scenario Ryan introduces his “Tough Love Employment Act of 2014.”  This bill will coerce those able to work to shape up and find a job or have all government benefits, even free food, eliminated. Work or starve, so to speak.

Job training would now be compulsory and resemble old-fashioned Catholic schools or military basic training, not passively attending a course or two at some community college-like setting. After all, if these more gentle endeavors worked as intended, hard core unemployment would have vanished decades ago (see here, and here and here for examples of current “soft” programs). Training begins with punctuality -- show up five days a week at 8:00AM exactly on time, even if this means getting up at 6:00AM, feeling less than perfect, fighting traffic and not going home before 5:00PM.  Failure to meet this requirement brings instant expulsion and zero government benefits for a month.

Then intensive training in work- related “soft” skills -- practice at dressing appropriately (neatly, no below-the-waist pants, no weird facial hair etc.), coaching on speaking clearly without obscenities, inculcating the habit of tenacity, instruction in good manners including being polite, exercises in paying attention and following the bosses orders without backtalk, and so on to transform oneself into a good, reliable, hard-working employee. Then add character-building lessons essential for pulling oneself out of poverty -- learning to delay gratification, wisely budgeting time and money, the danger of indulging impulses such as buying costly electronic trinkets, the benefits of frugality, and the absolute necessity of avoiding legal trouble. Advanced training might include exercises to build entrepreneurial skills, borrowing small sums to begin and run a small business (a traditional pathway out of poverty) and similar habits long embraced by upwardly mobile immigrants.  For those who condemn “dead end” jobs, keep in mind that some 60% of those who own highly lucrative McDonald’s franchises began as hourly employees.

By necessity training will entail lots of repeated punishments beyond just losing government-supplied benefits. No high school-like coddling where teachers conveniently overlook minor transgressions to keep warm bodies in school. Think elite military units with their high flunk-out rates. Trainees who over-socialize might be required to write “I will not gossip on the job” 100 times while classmates watched and snickered. Punishments might include fines, being chewed out in public, various humiliations, withholding food, even penalties common in sports or the military e.g., doing push-ups or running laps at a track. After all, years of slovenly work habits cannot be reversed by offering free lessons on automobile repair or baking. This is harsh “no pain, no gain” vocational training.    

What might be the reaction to our hypothetical Congressman Ryan’s tough love cure? I’d guess widespread outrage. Why should people lose their free meals or Obama phones for refusing to be punctual? Perhaps it just their culture and, as we all know, one culture is as good as another. Surely there are more kindhearted ways to instill industriousness than punishing those who prefer a “cool” approach to getting the job done. Indeed, the whole idea of painful punishment is abhorrent in today’s supposedly more enlightened times. A few racial ideologues might even hint that this approach forces recruits “to act white” while withholding free government-supplied benefits violates a UN-certified human right. Lawsuits will proliferate (“cruel and unusual punishment,” perhaps).

But, even if implemented, it would probably die by endless waivers. Those forced off the government trough might find sympathetic doctors willing to certify them as psychologically unable to get up early in the morning or stop talking on their cell phones. Rest assured, resistance to following instructions may become a court recognized escape work disability -- Following Direction Deficit Disorder (FDDD). The New York Times will announce that those kicked off welfare for refusing to exercise a modicum of self-discipline are being stigmatized only because they are poor since rich kids are just as guilty.  

Opposition can also be expected from functionaries profiting from today’s failed anti-poverty programs.  Judged by the repeated disappointments, and the huge expenditures (almost $800 billion annually), failure is big business. And the liberal media would go wild with lurid tales of “good people” being humiliated by being forced to scrub floors to keep their food stamps. What politician wants to harm the delicate self-esteem of those trying to overcome the barriers imposed by an unfair society?  

For centuries millions have escaped poverty via plain-to-see and not too difficult to follow formulae. We don’t need a 73 page treatise on bureaucratic reorganization. The best anti-poverty nostrum is the Calvinist work ethic and despite the Calvinist label, it applies universally regardless of religion or color. But, it comes with a liability -- the pathway out of poverty must be painful. Congressman Ryan means well with his turgid 73 page treatise and may well help erase his past “racist” gaffe. But let me suggest that after resigning from Congress, he should hit the road and preach the gospel of no pain, no gain. Who knows, such courage might be widely admired and even help him be elected President. Yes, endless hard work but it certainly outshines groveling.