In Blog: Factually Speaking

A renewed discussion of poverty is welcome in a time when 1 in 6 Michiganians and nearly 1 in 4 children in Michigan are living in poverty. That’s why Speaker Paul Ryan’s anti-poverty proposal, A Better Way, is encouraging: it makes us think about how we should support people who are struggling and the most vulnerable among us. But while this focus on poverty is a welcome change, Speaker Ryan’s proposals rely on outdated and debunked assumptions about the nature of poverty.

The big idea in Ryan’s proposal is a doubling-down on the 1996 Welfare Reform. Under these rules, you would now have to work or prepare for work in order to receive benefits for programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the federal program that provides food assistance to millions of Americans, as well as various federal housing programs.

Implicit in Ryan’s understanding of the nature of poverty is the idea that programs like SNAP are a disincentive to work. By his logic, if we take people off public assistance they’ll have to go to work. He’s wrong.

First of all, the average SNAP benefit in March 2016 (most recent data available) was only about $4 a day, not enough to feed an adult. Since people need more money to survive, they are actually encouraged to work. In fact, 43% of SNAP recipients live in a household where someone works and nearly 75% of Michigan SNAP households had a member in the workforce in the past year.
Many of the remaining recipients are children, seniors or residents with disabilities. Only about 13% of SNAP recipients in Michigan are able-bodied, childless adults. SNAP isn’t trapping people in poverty. It’s doing the opposite, lifting 10 million Americans out of poverty.

Second, Ryan is wrong when he warns that more and more people are on public assistance. Ever since the economic recovery began, SNAP participation has been declining. When the economy is improving and wages are rising, people will take those jobs and no longer need to use programs like SNAP.

But when the economy is in rough shape, it isn’t reasonable to demand that people work in order to receive benefits. That’s why we haven’t had SNAP work requirements in Michigan in recent years: it’s still really hard to find a good job right now. The answer is not to penalize people with high barriers to work but to empower them with skills to get a job and to ensure they are paid a living wage.

That’s one reason why we need a higher minimum wage. For a single adult in Michigan in 2016, a full-time minimum wage worker earns less than $20,000 a year, less than the necessary income to meet basic needs. We could raise the minimum wage without large adverse effects. A higher minimum wage will restore the dignity of work and make sure that working is worth it.

To be sure, we’d all like to see people on public assistance become self-sufficient. But we need to understand that the driving forces of poverty, barriers to economic opportunity, will not be solved by pulling the rug out from under Michiganians who are already barely getting by. Ryan’s proposal continues the practice of scapegoating public assistance instead of looking at the real policies perpetuating poverty.

— Mario Gruszczynski

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