As usual, every time Paul Ryan comes up with a plan to try to reduce the deficit it provides fodder for liberal hysterics, generally claiming that he either wants to push retired people off cliffs or raise revenue by issuing hunting permits to bag the poor. It’s turned into something of a parlor game amongst the Left side punditry and generally gives everyone something to do until the next election. But the latest round of heads of hair being set ablaze has to do with an interesting new wrinkle in the story. Ryan had the temerity to suggest that some people who find themselves perpetually in dire financial straits might benefit from some strategic advice on the best way to advance their positions.
According to Slate’s Jamelle Bouie, the idea of “life coaches for the poor” is simply an outrage.
In his response to Ryan’s anti-poverty plan, Jared Bernstein—former chief economist for Vice President Joe Biden—writes, “The main problem faced by the American poor is not that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the safety net. It’s that they lack the employment and earnings opportunities necessary to work their way out of poverty.”
Bingo. At some point in their lives, millions of Americans will experience a short spell of poverty. Not because they don’t have a plan to fix their lives or lack the skills to move forward, but because our economy isn’t run to create demand for labor, isn’t equipped to deliver stable work to everyone who wants it, and wasn’t built to address the distributive needs of everyone who works.
The best way to confront this problem for most people is to just address those needs. Yes, on the margins, there will be Americans who need an intensive approach, and I endorse government support for voluntary life coaching. (For example, look at the Center for Urban Families in Baltimore.) But by and large, the easiest solution is to mail larger checks to more people. In other words, we need more solutions like Ryan’s expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit—the best part of his plan—and fewer life coaches for the poor.
On some level, you can understand what Bouie is talking about, specifically in terms of the statistics he cites. Not everyone in need of assistance would qualify as being in situations of long term, generational poverty. (Arguably the ones most in need of intensive counseling as to how to make a significant lifestyle change.) But that’s not to say that those who are in other situations – such as children, students, the chronically unemployed and the elderly – couldn’t benefit from a better plan. I’ve sought career and financial management guidance myself (because it’s not always that easy to find the best plan… if you have any tips, leave them in the comments).
The author’s chief objection seems to be that the counseling in question would be mandatory or a condition of receiving benefits in some circumstances. This, apparently, is somehow “insulting” to the recipient. Why some advice on how to better manage your finances and career options is insulting is not explained. But even if we were to implement such a plan, couldn’t a competent counselor quickly weed out those in the above categories who were clearly only in need of short term assistance for reasons beyond their control and sign them out of the system for a period of time?
In the end, it seems that there will be objections raised any time there is any sort of condition applied to the receipt of benefits. Bouie writes disparagingly of any other attempts to tie “accountability” (in quotes) to aid, such as welfare caps and mandatory work requirements. In this case, we’re talking about nothing more than evaluations and offering advice on how to do better for yourself. Yet this is somehow lumped in with every other reform effort and described as something which ” all but punishes” the poor. The author’s solution, as quoted above, is to simply mail more and larger checks and don’t ask questions. Starting from such a perspective, it’s hard to see how any meaningful improvement to the system could ever be implemented.