WASHINGTON -- Last week at the Heritage Foundation Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) touched on an issue that has often been used to paint Republicans as heartless: criticism of welfare programs that aim to help the poor. As he introduced his budget today, Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Congressman who ran for vice president a year ago, went right back to the lightning-rod topic, returning to many of the same themes.
“We have put so much money into our welfare programs, into our poverty fighting programs, yet we have 46 million people living in poverty. It’s among the highest rates of poverty that we’ve had in a generation,” Ryan said at a morning news conference in the Capitol. “So rather than measure how much money are we spending in these programs, let’s think about measuring: are we helping people? Are we getting people out of poverty?”
Speaking at a conservative think tank last week, Toomey also criticized the results of social programs compared to the amount of money that goes into them. “We've had huge increases in funding for these programs, and the net effect now is that there are people who discover that the government will provide food, shelter, health care, education, transportation, cash, a very long list of all the things you need, as long as you don't work very much, you don't make very much. It creates a huge economic disincentive,” he said, arguing that the benefits are so great that it creates an incentive against working, lest people lose eligibility.
This is touchy territory – remember, Mitt Romney’s chances at being president unraveled over his remarks that cast people with low income as takers who feel entitled to benefits. My story on Toomey’s comments drew an unusual number of e-mail responses, including some infuriated at his take and some who agreed with him and felt we cast his words in an overly negative light.
But Toomey and Ryan are trying to cast their critiques in a different way than Romney, one that still argues for change but offers a different reasoning. Look at Ryan’s comments: “are we getting people out of poverty?” Toomey was less direct on this but said “we all want to have a safety net” and “we should really have a debate about the impact that the cumulative effect of all these programs has on the very people they’re meant to help.”
He’s arguing that there might be a better method – and both are tying their fixes for poverty to the same prescription they offer the rest of the economy: smaller government and less spending that they say will encourage economic growth and new opportunities.
This is the key piece of the GOP's fiscal message. "Balancing the budget is not simply an act of arithmetic," Ryan said today. "Balancing the budget is a means to an end ... a pro-growth economy that delivers opportunity."
There’s an important messaging point here as each side tries to persuade the public over the federal budget.
Republicans are aiming to cut taxes and also government programs – Ryan’s plan calls for dropping the top tax bracket from over 39 percent to 25 percent and for cutting corporate rates as well. Meanwhile, to reduce the deficit he cuts into social programs, including a recent expansion of Medicaid, the health program for the poor, and includes time limits for food stamps, which liberals argue will result in less help for the needy.
“They are picking on a population that they think is an easier political target for them,” said Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House budget committee.
If fiscal conservatives want to truly change these programs, they will have to overcome the criticism that they are attacking the poor so they can help the rich. Toomey and Ryan are each trying to walk this difficult political path.
(And, no, I don’t think the similar comments from two leading GOP budget brains are a coincidence. Ryan today also frequently echoed Toomey’s language about “pro-growth” policies and repeatedly promised tax reform that creates jobs and encourages business – major Toomey talking points. “Opportunity Expanded” is the heading of one section of Ryan’s plan).
The challenge for Toomey and Ryan, who call for lower tax rates, is to win the argument that their proposals will truly help the middle class and poor as well, and not just pay lip service to those groups while the wealthy cheer, as Democrats have often charged, to great effect.