This past weekend, in my congressional district, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott hosted a presidential candidate forum titled “Expanding Opportunity.” This title reflects the longstanding attempt of House Republican leaders to frame the inequality debate as one in which, as Ryan noted in 2014, Democrats focus on “equality of outcomes” while Republicans focus on “equality of opportunity,” which their favored policies are supposedly more likely to bring about. Speaker Ryan attempted to make a similar assertion at Saturday’s forum, noting: “We now have a safety net that is designed to catch people falling into poverty when what we really need is a safety net that is designed to help get people out of poverty.”
While I disagree with the Speaker’s attempts to dismantle Social Security and Medicare, which partially equalize outcomes by preventing seniors from falling into poverty, I wholeheartedly reject the assertion that trickle-down economic policies would do more to advance equality of opportunity than a middle-out approach.
It is sadly appropriate that the forum took place in Columbia, South Carolina, an area with some of the lowest socioeconomic mobility in the country. According to the Equality of Opportunity Project, a child raised in the bottom fifth of the national income distribution in the Columbia area has just a 4.2 percent chance of rising to the top fifth, making it one of the worst places to grow up poor in America. If right-wing policies expand economic opportunity, why hasn’t South Carolina, with right-wing policies prevalent throughout state government, seen the benefits?
The reality is that the Expanding Opportunity forum, while perhaps well-meaning, must not distract from the fact that trickle-down policies—and the Ryan budget in particular—would severely constrict opportunity in numerous ways. Consider the following:
- In order to take advantage of opportunity, one must be healthy. The Ryan budget would cut Medicaid by hundreds of billions of dollars and send the funds to the states as block grants, putting life-and-death decisions in the hands of state governments. South Carolina is one example of a state government that has thus far made the choice not to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, despite an estimate that such a decision would result in the premature deaths of nearly 200 South Carolinians every year.
- Ryan’s budget would double down on this opportunity-crushing, lethal agenda by repealing the Affordable Care Act, stripping health care away from millions who have gained coverage in the marketplaces or through the Medicaid expansion.
- Similarly, while working one’s way out of poverty is difficult under the best of circumstances, Ryan wants to make it even harder by drastically cutting nutrition assistance so that those striving to rise above the poverty line don’t have enough to eat.
- High quality pre-K expands opportunity for a lifetime. But the House Majority refuses to support universal pre-K and would cut hundreds of thousands of Head Start slots.
- Opportunity is virtually impossible without access to educational resources. But the Ryan budget reduces funding for education by an amount equivalent to 3,600 schools, 13,000 teachers, and nearly 1.6 million students.
- In the 21st century knowledge-based economy, a college education is essential to career opportunities. But the Ryan budget would cut Pell Grants by $370 million, making college even less affordable for poor students.
- For many Americans, job training and employment services are vital opportunities to gain the skills necessary for a productive career and to find jobs using those skills. But the Ryan budget would take these services away from 2 million people.
- The Equality of Opportunity Project found that, by the time they reached adulthood, poor children whose families received a Section 8 housing voucher earned nearly $2,000 a year more than children raised in public housing projects. But the Ryan budget threatens to take this opportunity away from 100,000 families.
- The same Equality of Opportunity Project study found that poor children whose families received an experimental voucher to move to low-poverty neighborhoods earned nearly $3,500 more when they grew up than those raised in public housing. But in 2014, 219 House Republicans, including Speaker Ryan, voted to stop an Obama Administration effort to create similar opportunities on a wide scale.
- Republicans and Democrats agree that children born from unintended pregnancies are particularly likely to struggle for economic opportunity. But the Ryan budget would eliminate Title X Family Planning funding, which averts approximately one million unintended pregnancies every year.
As much as Speaker Ryan might want to talk about expanding opportunity without caring about inequality, it has been shown repeatedly that societies with more inequality also have less opportunity—a relationship known as the Great Gatsby Curve. If Speaker Ryan and the House majority are truly committed to making opportunity more equal, they should take steps to increase the minimum wage, expand paid sick leave, and target resources to persistent poverty communities. We could start with my 10-20-30 proposal, which Ryan appeared to be open to when I testified before the House Budget Committee in 2014.
Even the few positive proposals that some members of the House Majority support—such as bipartisan criminal justice reform—would not come close to making up for their broader agenda, which constricts opportunity for low-income families while cutting taxes for the rich by trillions of dollars. Forums like the one held in South Carolina are good for gathering input but outcomes are needed to lift people out of poverty.