Advocates Worry about Ryan’s ‘Better Way’ Agenda

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin

Children and youth advocates criticized House Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) A Better Way program of welfare reform for offering the wrong solutions, ignoring programs that work and endorsing those that don’t.

Ryan’s agenda calls for a broad overhaul of the programs intended to help children and families escape the worst parts of poverty. But, Ryan’s program ( is headed in the wrong direction, according to an analysis by the Center for Law and Social Policy. 

Instead of building on what works, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), expanded Head Start and child care subsidies, and nutritional assistance, Ryan offered the same answers of consolidations, cuts, waivers, and participation requirements that have been shown to undermine the effectiveness of key support programs, CLASP said.

The safety net works. It reduces poverty, improve families’ wellbeing, and—according to strong emerging evidence—improve the long-term life chances of children who benefit from key programs. In 2014, the U.S. Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) shows that refundable credits, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, reduced overall poverty (as measured by the SPM) by 3.1 percentage points and child poverty by a remarkable 7.1 percentage points, CLASP said.

Similarly, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits reduced overall poverty by 1.5 percentage points and child poverty by 2.8%. Researchers at Columbia U. who used similar methods to analyze the effect of these key programs found that in 2012, the most recent year with available data, government tax and transfer policies reduced the share of people who are poor by almost half, from 29% to 16%. By contrast, in 1967, tax and transfer programs reduced poverty by just 1 percentage point, from 27% to 26%, CLASP said.

Recent rigorous studies of both SNAP and public health insurance have demonstrated the positive effects of access as a child to these safety net programs on life outcomes into adulthood. Having access to SNAP in early childhood improves adult outcomes including health and economic self-sufficiency. Expanding health insurance coverage for low-income children has large effects on high school completion, college attendance, and college completion.

The proposal explicitly uses the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant as a model to be replicated to other public assistance programs operating at the federal level—even though the history of TANF shows vividly why block grant programs don’t work, CLASP said. The value of the TANF block grant has fallen by 33% over the last 20 years, leaving fewer than 1 in 5 poor children with any help at all from the program (and fewer than 1 in 10 in 17 states). And unlike the core safety net programs like Medicaid and SNAP that provided more help to states, families, and communities when revenues shrank and need rose during the Great Recession, TANF barely responded at all because of its capped resources, CLASP said.

The block grant has also given states so much flexibility in the use of federal and state expenditures that basic monthly assistance accounts for only 27% of spending under TANF (and work programs for only 8%); instead program funds have been used to plug holes in state budgets or to support other social programs that may vaguely meet one of the core statutory purposes of TANF, CLASP said.

The Ryan proposal also doubles down on work mandates—for example, in housing assistance programs—even though work requirements without strong public investment in jobs and training typically serve only to cut poor individuals off from help they need, rather than helping them get jobs, CLASP said.

By contrast, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) of 2014, which Congress passed in a nearly unanimous bipartisan vote, emphasizes effective skills training leading to postsecondary credentials that employers recognize as having value in the labor market, which research has found to be “the most important determinant of differences in workers’ lifetime earnings and incomes.”

Another example of the bad ideas in this proposal is one that builds on ill-advised provisions of the House child nutrition reauthorization bill, which would shrink coverage of the very successful community eligibility provision and inappropriately increase verification paperwork for families, CLASP said.

The House bill also includes a three-state block grant proposal that would immediately cut the funding to operate the school nutrition programs in those states, and cap funding thereafter. With each year, the programs’ ability to serve low-income children will erode even further and states will be unable to respond to any increase in need arising from a recession or population growth, CLASP said.

And the paper’s claim that anti-poverty programs can be dramatically improved—including the elimination of “cliff effects” resulting from the loss of benefits as earnings increase—with no additional spending, while appealing, is just not true. The reality is that many key elements of economic security—child care, housing, transportation, and education—are unaffordable for low-wage workers even when they are able to find steady employment. No amount of state flexibility or coordination will substitute for adequate funding for these essentials, CLASP said.


Instead, Congress should seize opportunities that build on research and experience. These include expanded access to child care for all low-income parents, investment in effective workforce development programs and career opportunities, financial access to postsecondary education and completion for today’s low-income students, CLASP said.

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About Frank Klimko

Frank Klimko is a nationally known journalist, grants expert and speech writer/speaker. He has years of experience helping nonprofits devise lists of the right funding opportunities and secure funding from these foundations and corporate entities. Clients have focused on an array of areas including child care, homeless, hunger and K-12 education. Additionally, he is a Freedom of Information Act expert, who has helped numerous clients with securing proprietary information from the federal government. Currently, Frank Klimko writes the Children & Youth Funding Report and Private Grants Alert, which are Washington DC-based publications. CYF is a daily publication covering Congress, the Education Dept. and the various federal regulatory agencies. PGA, another daily publication, covers the world of private philanthropy.
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