Media and Politics

The Paul Ryan Guide to Pretending You Care About the Poor

Once, at a town hall in Wisconsin, someone asked known anti-poverty crusader Paul Ryan (R-WI) the following question:

“I know that you’re Catholic, as am I, and it seems to me that most of the Republicans in the Congress are not willing to stand with the poor and working class as evidenced in the recent debates about health care and the anticipated tax reform. So I’d like to ask you how you see yourself upholding the church’s social teaching that has the idea that God is always on the side of the poor and dispossessed, as should we be.”

It’s a tricky one, but if you want to simultaneously cut taxes for rich people and benefits for poor people, you need to be ready for it. So, just in time for the tax debate, I’ve written a handy step-by-step guide on how to convince your constituents that a help-the-rich, whack-the-poor agenda is really what’s best for everybody:

1. Say you share the same goals.

Let’s be honest: It sounds pretty bad to say that you want to take from the poor to give to the rich. So, don’t do it! The trick here is to convince people that you’re with them on the importance of helping the poor. You just disagree about “how to achieve that goal.”

Congratulations! You’ve just turned a profound moral question about whether we should help the poor or the rich into what appears to be a minor disagreement between ethically equivalent opinions.

2. Direct attention away from what it means to be poor.

Lots of people think poor people simply don’t have enough money to meet their families’ basic needs. You know better. Tell them what the poor really need is “upward mobility,” “economic growth,” and “equality of opportunity.” Not only do these airy concepts all sound really good—who could be against any of them?—they also let you pivot away from the obvious solution: giving people the money, food, health care, and other necessities they lack.

True, Ryan’s agenda doesn’t provide any of those things. But don’t worry! If you just repeat the lie that tax cuts for the rich spur economic growth, no one will even have time to dig into the intimate connection between inequality of outcomes and inequality of opportunity.

3. Imply that poor people’s personal failings are what’s holding them back.

You can’t pull off the enlightened nice-guy routine if you’re blaming poor people for their problems outright. You need to do it subtly. Instead of saying, “Poor people are poor because they’re lazy,” try saying, “We’ve got to change our approach … and always encourage work, never discourage work.” Never mind that most people who can work already do, or that wages are so low it’s possible (and quite common) to work full-time and still be in poverty. People are predisposed to believe that our success relative to those less fortunate is a result of our superior work ethic and talents, rather than a product of race, class, gender, and/or other forms of privilege and sheer dumb luck. The more you tap into that inclination, the more people will oppose helping those less fortunate and support imposing burdensome requirements on the Have Nots instead.

He’s fine with leaving those inconvenient details out, and you should be fine with doing so, too.

4. Choose unrepresentative examples and statistics.

Paul Ryan loves to tell people that “our poverty rates are about the same as they were when we started [the] War on Poverty,” which is more or less what the official poverty measure shows. Does it bother him that the official measure excludes the effects of the very programs he says aren’t working? Nope. It shouldn’t bother you, either. You also shouldn’t feel obligated to mention the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which shows that anti-poverty programs cut poverty nearly in half and have reduced poverty by 10 percentage points since the late 1960s. After all, Ryan doesn’t!

Similarly, Ryan likes to lament the case of “a single mom getting 24 grand in benefits with two kids who,” because of the way the safety net is designed, “will lose 80 cents on the dollar if she goes and takes a job.” The extraordinary rareness of this case doesn’t phase him, nor does the fact that his proposed remedies for this problem make life for that single mom—and thousands of others—much worse. He’s fine with leaving those inconvenient details out, and you should be fine with doing so, too.

5. Hammer “focus on outcomes” rhetoric.

Focusing on outcomes is popular in many fields, so this talking point—that “instead of measuring success based on how much money we spend or how many programs we create or how many people are on those programs … [we should] measure success in poverty on outcomes”—is very effective. The fact that nobody actually measures program effectiveness by how much money we spend or by the number of programs we create is irrelevant, as is the large and growing body of research showing that the safety net boosts the long-run outcomes of children growing up in poor families. As long as you contend that we currently don’t focus on outcomes, you can make our anti-poverty programs seem misguided.

There will always be those who oppose funneling money from low- and middle-income Americans to the wealthy and corporations. But if you stick to these tried-and-true steps from Paul Ryan, before you know it, you’ll have convinced a constituency (and perhaps even yourself!) that helping the rich is actually about helping the poor. Or, at the very least, people will be too confused to know the difference.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on 34justice.com. It has been edited for length and content. 

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Media and Politics

Are You in One of the 36 Million Families Whose Taxes Will Go Up Under the House Bill?

This week, without a single hearing, the House of Representatives is expected to vote on the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.” After weeks of claiming that all middle-class taxpayers would see a tax cut, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) took the rare step of admitting to a lie over the weekend, telling The New York Times, “You can’t guarantee that absolutely no one sees a tax increase.” And on Friday, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) also sought to walk back his claims, from promising tax cuts to “everyone” to assuring “average” taxpayers that they would see a cut. Now, new analysis shows just how many middle- and working-class Americans would see a tax increase under their tax plan.

According to analysis by the Center for American Progress based on Tax Policy Center data, 36 million working- and middle-class households would see a tax increase by 2027 under the House tax bill. Based on the latest version of the tax plan, 22.5 percent of tax units (tax parlance for households) in the bottom 80 percent of the income scale would see their taxes go up by 2027, at an average cost of a whopping $1,130 per family with a tax increase. With more than 159 million households in these income brackets, 36 million would end up facing a tax increase.

t17-0256Source: Tax Policy Center.

And what’s most striking is just how many of the tax increases in the bill fall on middle class and struggling families. In fact, the middle and working class will comprise the overwhelming majority of those facing tax increases under the House bill (36 million out of 45 million households facing tax increases).

So, how does this happen? The short answer is that the House tax bill is so heavily tilted toward corporations and high-income taxpayers that they have to raise taxes on many middle-class families in order to pay for it. The largest tax cut, which would lower the corporate rate from 35 percent to 20 percent, would cost about $1.5 trillion over 10 years. There is also a new tax loophole for President Donald Trump himself—cutting the top rate on “pass-through” income from 39.6 percent to 25 percent. The bill eliminates the Alternative Minimum Tax, which also exclusively benefits households with incomes above $200,000. And it repeals the estate tax after 5 years, which is paid by the wealthiest 0.2 percent of estates and will cost about $240 billion over the next decade.

As Rebecca Vallas and I outlined last week, this is partially offset with a series of tax cuts on the working and middle class. Some of the hardest hit will be student loan recipients: Nearly 12 million will be affected by repeal of the student loan interest deduction. Graduate students will be hit even harder, since the House tax bill proposes taxing tuition paid by their universities, which will raise taxes by nearly $10,000 on some students.

The plan also eliminates the Work Opportunity Tax Credit—an incentive for businesses that hire disabled veterans and people who have been looking for work. And, perhaps most egregiously, the House bill ends tax benefits for people with high medical expenses. This would fall particularly hard on seniors in need of long-term care and families of Alzheimer’s patients.

Importantly, the bill’s “Family Flexibility Credit”—a provision in the bill that does benefit the middle class—would expire after 5 years, even though nearly every other tax cut (corporate tax cut, the Trump “pass-through” loophole, estate tax elimination, and the elimination of the alternative minimum tax) would continue indefinitely.

Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell may want to tout the middle-class benefits of their tax bill, but if one thing is clear from the current tax legislation, it’s this: It’s a great deal for the wealthiest Americans and large corporations, and a lousy one for the middle and working class.

Alex Thornton, Seth Hanlon, and Alex Rowell all contributed analysis.

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Culture

The Value of Life, Measured by Word Count

My stepfather passed away a few years ago. His death came suddenly and without warning—he went into the bathroom one morning, and my mother discovered him unresponsive on the floor a short time later.

Like most people in my family, he didn’t have life insurance. He also didn’t have a bank account or assets of any kind (we don’t use the word “estate” in my clan). We made all our decisions about his memorial solely by financial cost. Direct cremation—with no casket or funeral—is the cheapest option, so that was our default choice. Even that was beyond the budget for my mother, who doesn’t have a checking account and whose sole income is a meager Social Security check. A few family members somehow managed to scrape together $1,000. I’m not sure how they did it, but my family handles money with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Then we moved on to the obituary. In our town, as in many places, obituaries aren’t free. Our local newspaper charges by the column line, with a minimum charge of $30. Photos cost extra, and large pictures and color come at a premium.

It was my job to write the obituary, and I had to weigh every word and sentence carefully. Including a photo was out of the question, and listing grandchildren by individual name was a luxury we couldn’t afford. His obituary mostly contained just the basic facts: my mother’s name, and those of his children, along with the number of grandkids. We did manage to squeeze in a dozen words to mention that he loved Elvis and left behind his beloved dog—but up until we ran the numbers at the last minute, we weren’t sure if even that brief sentence would make the cut.

When every dollar counts, so does every word.

The cost of a printed obituary can vary widely, depending on the pricing structure and location. Some newspapers charge by word count, while others calculate a price based on column inch. Funeral directors quoted by National Cremation say an average obituary can easily run between $200 and $500. Alan Mutter, who teaches media economics at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, called obituaries “among the most highly profitable advertising format in a newspaper.” Even online, self-service obituary platforms, such as Legacy.com, come at a cost. The expense catches many grieving families, including ours, off-guard. The Print Obituary Pricing Study conducted by AdPay and Legacy.com found that the actual cost of an obituary was considerably more than what consumers expected to pay, especially in large cities.

Obituaries are a distillation of the most important things about someone’s life

That’s partially because we don’t think of obituaries as an ad—we think of them as a public record. They’re a distillation of the most important things about someone’s life, stripped of its flaws until the only thing left is a gleaming statement of value. So we automatically assume that the longer the obituary, the more meaningful the person’s life must have been.

The most significant and impactful contributions in a person’s life can often be summed up in a few short yet powerful words: “He earned a Purple Heart for his valiant bravery in saving fellow soldiers,” “She dedicated herself to her work as a hospice nurse, providing comfort to patients in their final hours,” or even something as simple as, “She worked as a kindergarten teacher for 30 years.”

The longer obituaries, more often than not, don’t show more worth. But they allow for depth. They are filled with amusing yet not-quite-essential tidbits—the woman who could never balance her checkbook because her husband kept helping people pay their bills, or the man who went to trampoline class three times a week when he was 96. These are the things that help the reader feel like they truly knew the deceased person, that capture their personality and commemorate their quirks.

There weren’t many colorful bits in my stepfather’s obituary, which follows a family tradition. My grandmother lived to her mid-80s and had seven children, but her obituary contained just 40 words—less than half a word for each of her years. The tiny notice listed the number of children and grandchildren she had, but there was no room to mention how much she enjoyed watching ice skating on television, or her addiction to National Enquirer (even though she didn’t know who most of the celebrities were).

But that’s how it goes. That final recognition is a luxury reserved only for those lucky enough to be able to afford it.

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Safety Net

Poverty Is Largely Invisible Among College Students

The first time I met an undergraduate who hadn’t eaten in two days, I was stunned. The first time I spent the afternoon with a homeless college junior, I cried for most of the night. Now, after a decade of research on food and housing insecurity among college students, I’m just numb.

I teach at an urban public university—a “Research 1,” top-of-the-Carnegie-rankings institution. I’m not one of Philadelphia’s school teachers; I’m a professor with just one class to teach each term and a big research budget. But those trappings of prestige no longer shield me from the realities of poverty in our city, and more importantly, they don’t help my students.

Since 2008, my team’s research on how students finance college has revealed that the main barrier to degree completion isn’t tuition; it’s having a place to sleep and enough food to eat. The best estimates suggest that food insecurity affects as many as 1 in 2 college students—much higher than the rate in the general population. Just as many struggle with housing insecurity, and a significant number (14 percent at community colleges) are homeless.

This is a largely invisible problem. Stereotypes of Ramen-noodle diets and couch-surfing partiers prevent us from seeing it. They trick us into thinking that food insecurity is a rite of passage, that hunger and even homelessness among our students is normal. But it is time to admit that we have a serious problem in higher education.

Some campuses have begun implementing small reforms to address food insecurity. The College and University Food Bank Alliance has more than 525 members from coast to coast, with food pantries housed at community colleges and universities, public and private. This is a stunning increase, since in 2012 there were just over 10. That provides emergency assistance to the students who are lucky enough to know about them, though what they actually stock varies. Sometimes there are fresh fruits and vegetables, but usually there are cans and bags, some bread, and the occasional bottle of shampoo or body wash.

In some cases, colleges are moving beyond food pantries. Just over two dozen schools operate a program known as Swipe Out Hunger, which reallocates unused dollars on meal plans to students who need them. Homegrown efforts such as Single Stop are helping students apply for SNAP, and some institutions are beginning to accept EBT on campus. In Houston, the local food bank is offering “food scholarships” to community college students, proactively providing groceries rather than waiting for emergencies to occur. There are food recovery networks, nutrition programs, and educational activities like Challah for Hunger, where students gather to break bread and learn about poverty. These efforts are entry points to systemic change, and they make it possible to envision a time in which the National School Lunch Program operates on all campuses, providing breakfast and lunch to every student who needs it.

Stereotypes of Ramen-noodle diets and couch-surfing partiers prevent us from seeing it.

But when it comes to housing, things don’t look so good. When colleges and universities think about housing, they see dollar signs to be gained from residence halls catering to wealthy and international students, rather than opportunities to facilitate affordable living. Given massive state disinvestment throughout the country, it is hard to blame the public institutions. But it means that a growing number of students are being left out in the cold.

Students who struggle to pay rent are at risk of eviction, like so many other low-income adults around the country. Those who seek out shelters find the same overcrowded and sometimes dangerous conditions that have long plagued those temporary accommodations, and students often miss out on beds because the lines form while they are still in class. Even young people who grew up in public housing can lose their housing when they enroll in college if their local housing authority deprioritizes full-time undergraduates.

The financial aid system contributes to these problems. Consider a 23-year-old adult living on the streets, estranged from two middle-class parents because he is queer. Under federal law, his parents’ income is used to determine his financial aid, even though he lacks access to those resources. His only hope of disregarding their income and qualifying for more support is to endure a “special circumstances” process that requires documentation verifying that he is homeless, which can be challenging if he was not homeless in high school and is not in the shelter system. In 2015-16, nearly 32,000 college students completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) verification process and were officially deemed homeless for financial aid purposes. However, more than 150,000 students indicated that they were homeless on an initial filtering question, but could not complete the necessary documentation process.

The oversight of the very real housing and food needs of undergraduates is hypocritical given the intense pressure we place on people today to complete college degrees. It is very difficult to complete anything—whether it is a vocational training program for a welding certificate, an associate’s degree in nursing, or an engineering program—without first having your basic needs met.

I am trying, in my own way, to do what I can. Last year, I created the FAST Fund to provide students with cash, quickly, when it is needed. And I added a statement to my syllabus that will remain there indefinitely:

Any student who has difficulty affording groceries or accessing sufficient food to eat every day or who lacks a safe and stable place to live, and believes this may affect their performance in the course, is urged to contact the CARE Team in the Dean of Students Office for support. Furthermore, please notify me if you are comfortable in doing so. This will enable me to provide any other resources that I may possess.

It is but a start, meant to help establish a culture of care in my classroom, one that I hope can be transmitted and reflected throughout the university. We can and must go further. Every college and university must help its students connect to every public benefits program for which they are eligible. That support, coupled with emergency cash assistance, can help shield students from hunger and help them keep a roof over their heads. Colleges should also pursue external partnerships with local food banks, housing authorities, and homeless shelters. And most of all, higher education has a responsibility to tackle poverty among its students in a data-driven way that acknowledges that students without resources do not lack talent, drive, or intellect. They simply need access to the same sorts of supports that students from families with money enjoy every day.

Talk about social mobility is all the rage in higher education right now. But let’s get real: College is a great route out of poverty, but for that path to work students must escape the conditions of poverty long enough to complete their degrees.

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Justice

Meet the Congresswoman Trying to Remove Barriers to Opportunity for People with Records

Today, as many as 1 in 3 Americans have some type of criminal record—many convicted of only minor offenses, and some having only arrests that never led to a conviction. But even a minor record can create lifelong barriers to employment, housing, education, and more, relegating many people with records and their families to a lifetime in poverty.

That’s why a bipartisan coalition in Pennsylvania has worked for more than two years to pass first-in-the-nation “clean slate” legislation that would allow minor nonviolent records to be automatically sealed once an individual remains crime-free for a set period of time. A bill was unanimously approved in the Pennsylvania Senate, 50-0, earlier this year, and it is expected to clear the House soon. Gov. Tom Wolf (D) has said he will sign the legislation into law. Even the Philadelphia Eagles are vocally supporting the bill.

And now there is movement to bring clean slate to the halls of Congress. At the recent #UnlockingOpportunity conference in Washington, I spoke with Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D)—Delaware’s first woman and first person of color elected to Congress—about her run for office and the prospect of clean legislation at the federal level.

Rebecca Vallas: I’d love to hear from you about your background and why you’ve decided to take on criminal justice reform and re-entry.

Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester: First, I never ran for office in my life. But in 2014, my husband ruptured his Achilles tendon on a business trip and blood clots went to his heart and lungs and he passed away. It changed everything for me.

I’m typically a very joyful person. Every job I’ve ever had I brought joy to it—from working as a summer youth employment coordinator, to working in the office of then-Congressman Tom Carper as an intern, to being a case worker and working on Social Security Disability and housing and other issues, to being Delaware’s secretary of labor. But when Charles passed, it made me question why am I here. What’s my purpose? And that election year I saw so many people who looked either sad or mad, who had a feeling of loss. Whether they lost their job or home during the housing crisis, or a child to gun violence, it just felt heavy. And the people who were running for office … I was like, “I’m already sad, and y’all are bringing me down.”

One or two encounters with the law should not stop you from supporting yourself or your family.

So, I decided to run. And I was debating Ivy League lawyers. People would comment on blogs that I looked like a deer in the headlights—because I was a deer in the headlights, I was scared to death. But the more stories I heard from people in my state, the more compelled I felt. And I remember one day at a campaign event in the park a guy was talking about the fact that he had gotten out of prison, and no matter how hard he tried he could not find a job. It reminded me of my own family history—my uncles and cousins in Philadelphia who went in and out of the prison system. And so this whole concept of clean slate rang true because your one or two encounters with the law should not stop you from supporting yourself or your family. This issue touches people’s ability to buy a home, to rent an apartment, to just live.

When I heard about Pennsylvania’s legislation, it was a no-brainer for me that this is an issue that cuts across parties. And so we can announce here that I will be introducing federal clean slate legislation.

RV: Thank you. And I’d love to hear from you how a federal clean slate law could remove barriers not just for people with records but for their children and for their families.

LBR: We all know the impact that a parent going through a criminal justice system has on families. An article in The Atlantic magazine is a perfect example. It’s about a woman who was 57 years old, who was a grandmother. This charge had been following her for 38 years and stopping her from getting a job. But this legislation is saying it shouldn’t be hard for you to clean your record when you’ve served your time, some time has gone by, and it was a nonviolent offense. Anything that gets rid of the barriers for people to live, go to school, have a job, rent or own a home, that’s the goal of this legislation is to clean the slate so that you can live your life.

RV: What are the chances of seeing something actually move through Congress?

LBR: We can at least try to find common ground. I already have in mind a [Congressperson] who’s got a criminal justice background, who will probably seem way to the other political extreme of me, but who can also provide credibility. I believe that we can get this done—and it doesn’t even cost money. The fact that it could possibly save money and help the economy and help people’s lives I think makes it a win-win-win.

I also want to leave everyone with a message of encouragement. That no matter what you see swirling around you, stay focused. I was a dancer as a kid, and we’d do pirouettes. And people would say, “How can you spin and not fall?” It’s because you would focus on one spot, even though everything is spinning around you. We’re gonna make it through all of this swirl.

This interview also aired on Off-Kilter as part of a complete episode on October 27. It was edited for length and clarity.

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