Paul Ryan Just Changed the Definition of ‘Welfare.’ That’s Dangerous.

The poverty plan released last week by a House GOP task force begins not with a summary of poverty and wage trends, but with an overview of what it calls “the welfare system.” Entitled “A Better Way,” the 39-page plan repeats the word “welfare” some 60 times. Yet, it contains no mention of the minimum wage, paid medical and family leave, and Social Security. For the task force, it seems, the pressing question isn’t how to fix the economy to reduce poverty and promote shared prosperity—it’s more to the tune of: “What should we do about welfare?”

This focus is misplaced. To compound that, the task force uses the label “welfare” in a strange way. Traditionally, the term “welfare” has been understood to mean the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, which provided income assistance up until 1996, and to some extent its successor, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). But the task force employs the term “welfare” in a much broader way—any program that has a means test or targets funds to low-income areas receives such a label. Medicaid, Pell Grants, the Earned Income Tax Credit, child care assistance, and job training are all “welfare.” So are Single-Family Rural Housing Loans, the Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection program, and a long list of other programs.

At the same time, the task force’s skewed definition of welfare excludes many of the benefits and services that make up the so-called welfare state, which includes Social Security, Medicare, and a long list of subsidies provided to individuals. Many of these benefits accrue to wealthy people—for example, tax subsidies such as the home mortgage interest deduction, the largest housing program in the United States, provides substantial cash benefits to well-off homeowners. Similarly, employer-provided health insurance, and particularly the employer-provided health insurance provided to high-income people, is massively subsidized through the tax code.

So why does “A Better Way” focus so much on “welfare,” and why does it define it in such an unusual way?

One likely answer comes from political scientist Martin Gilens’ book, Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy. Reviewing public opinion polls, Gilens noted that most Americans opposed spending more on “welfare,” but strongly supported concrete policies that help struggling families—just as long as they’re not tagged as “welfare.” Gilens concluded that opposition to “welfare” is driven largely by racial stereotypes, and fed by “racial distortions in the media’s coverage of poverty.” In particular, black Americans are over-represented in unsympathetic media portrayals of poverty, and in ways that reinforced the stereotyping of them as lazy. Similarly, as Professor Sanford Schram has noted, “welfare” did not become “a political epithet” in the United States until it was associated with African-Americans in the decades following the civil rights revolution.

Is the House task force intentionally using “welfare” as a racial dog whistle—that is, to make a coded appeal to whites in order to increase racial resentment and diminish support for anti-poverty programs? We can’t say for sure. But the term’s racially charged history, coupled with the task force’s novel use of it to apply to all means-tested services and benefits—but not to forms of welfare that disproportionately benefit the relatively affluent—doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

Earlier this year, House Speaker Paul Ryan disavowed his use of the word “takers.” In the same speech he said: “I was callous and I oversimplified and castigated people with a broad brush. There is a lot of that happening in America today.” Yes, Speaker Ryan, indeed there is, and the task force’s report on “welfare” is the most recent example.



It’s Not Just Climate Change Anymore. Meet the Right-Wing Poverty Deniers.

This past Sunday, I joined C-SPAN’s Washington Journal for a discussion on the House GOP poverty plan released earlier in the week.

My conservative counterpart on the show—Robert Rector of the right-wing Heritage Foundation—made his views on poverty clear early on in the conversation when he lamented that our aid programs are “too generous.” Believe it or not, he went on, poor people in America have basic household appliances such as refrigerators, stoves, ovens, microwaves, and—gasp! —air conditioning. He accused folks on the left—and the nonpartisan Census Bureau—of “exaggerating” the state of poverty in the U.S.

These are hardly new talking points for Rector. He’s been putting out “research” on how good poor Americans supposedly have it for years. Back in 2011, Rector’s brazenly titled report, Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an X-Box: What is Poverty in the United States Today? got the attention of Stephen Colbert, who gave it the treatment it deserves on The Colbert Report: “A refrigerator and a microwave? They can preserve and heat food?  Ooh la la!  I guess the poor are too good for mold and trichinosis.”

All joking aside, the fact that Rector is still peddling this line reflects just how out of touch right-wing views on poverty are today.

For starters, are our aid programs “too generous?”

As I noted on Washington Journal, Rector should try telling that to the more than 6 million Americans whose only income is food stamps—which provides just $1.40 per person per meal in nutrition assistance. Or the 3 in 4 low-income families who are eligible for housing assistance but don’t receive it and can spend 60, 70, or 80 percent of their income on rent and utilities each month, while they remain on decades-long waiting lists for aid. Rector should see how his line goes over with the 3 in 4 families with children in poverty who are not helped by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), because it was converted to a flat-funded block grant that’s lost one-third of its purchasing power since 1996. Or even with the small fraction of families lucky enough to receive TANF—because in no state are benefits greater than half the federal poverty line.

And are poor people in America secretly living high on the hog?

Most observers view the austere federal poverty line as an inadequate measure of hardship. Experts say a family of four needs an annual income of $50,000 to achieve an adequate but basic standard of living—more than twice the poverty line for a family of four, which is a measly $24,000.

By that measure, the number of people in this country struggling to make ends meet far exceeds the 47 million Americans with incomes below the poverty line; it amounts to nearly 1 in 3 Americans—more than 105 million people—living on the economic brink today. This much larger figure is confirmed by recent survey data. In a report released last month by the Federal Reserve Board, one-third of American adults say that they struggle to make ends meet.

It is clear that after decades of growing income inequality, economic hardship can hardly be described as an “us and them” phenomenon. With working families facing flat and declining wages and gains from economic growth increasingly concentrated in the hands of the wealthy, economic instability is now a widespread experience.

Rector’s comments on Washington Journal made clear his proposed solution: just deny the existence of poverty and hardship in America. If poor families are actually doing just fine—they have refrigerators and microwaves, after all—then not only does that free up policymakers to slash aid programs, it also removes any need to boost wages or enact any other policies that would cut poverty and make it easier to get ahead.

But for the 105 million Americans struggling to get by, the fact that they are fortunate enough to be able to refrigerate—and heat!—their food offers cold comfort.

It’s not just Heritage who’s out of touch. Last week, House Speaker Paul Ryan released a long-awaited poverty plan as part of his “A Better Way” House GOP policy agenda. He unveiled the plan at a drug rehab center, offering a not-so-subtle reminder of his views on the causes of poverty.

As Congresswoman Gwen Moore (D-WI) pointed out at a Center for American Progress event last week, if Ryan truly understood poverty in America, rather than seeing struggling individuals as “broken people,” he would have given the speech at a McDonald’s, surrounded by low-wage workers struggling because of a broken economy.

Even more out of touch were the comments made by Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY) at the plan’s release—he actually referred to people living in poverty as “untapped, dormant assets.”

Speaker Ryan and his colleagues’ limited understanding of poverty is also evident in the “A Better Way” plan itself, which echoes many of the themes found in their previous budgets. (This year’s House GOP budget, for example, got three-fifths of its cuts from programs that serve low- and moderate-income people, while protecting tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations.)

In addition to slashing housing assistance in the midst of a national affordable housing crisis, and proposing to cut school lunches, their solutions to poverty include legalizing bad financial advice by rolling back the Obama Administration’s “fiduciary rule” and blocking the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s proposed rule to protect cash-strapped borrowers from predatory payday lenders.

Perhaps even more notable than what’s in the plan is what it leaves out: any policies to create jobs or boost wages. Indeed, Ryan made clear in the Q&A following his speech that despite his previous claims to want to “push wages up,” he and his colleagues remain steadfastly opposed to raising the minimum wage.

Bipartisan interest in tackling poverty and expanding opportunity would be a welcome development. But instead of putting our heads in the sand, policymakers on both sides of the aisle must acknowledge the very real experience of poverty in America—and the many structural barriers that stand in the way of getting ahead.

That starts by admitting that poverty exists.


First Person

What Happens When You Can’t Afford Self-Care

For the last year, I have been keenly aware of my dire need for two things: therapy and exercise.

But for those who struggle to make ends meet like I do, it’s normal to live a life without these perks—even though many consider them necessary elements of a healthy lifestyle. Instead, self-care comes down to the very basics such as feeding yourself, showering, and attending to medical issues—that is, keeping yourself alive.

One website,, has a checklist of self-care activities. But only 10 out of 40 are activities I regularly partake in, and these are among the more banal activities: “I take a meal break from work” and “I brush my teeth daily.” The list also includes a host of things I can’t afford, such as, “I see a mental health professional when I need to” or “I take vacations from work when I can,” and “I don’t go to work when I’m sick.”

I haven’t been on vacation since 2013 because if I don’t work, I don’t get paid.  In fact, in my nearly 20 years in the workforce, I have only had one job that provided paid sick days. And so, when I was a student and worked full-time for a meager wage that I split between my tuition bill and my young daughter, I stressed over losing hours due to my daughter being sick. So when she was sick, which was often, I sent her to daycare after a dose of Tylenol, hoping not to get a call to come pick her up.

Constant stress of this sort takes a toll. A 2013 study published in Science Magazine concluded that people in poverty are so overloaded that their cognitive brain abilities are impaired to the point of debility. Yet, while the people living on the brink are the ones who need self-care the most, they are the least likely to engage in it. I can attest to this. When daily life revolves around fighting for survival, stress is part and parcel of the ride.

When daily life revolves around fighting for survival, stress is part and parcel of the ride.

My lack of exercise and therapy is actually not due to insufficient access. I live one block away from a gym with a low, monthly, no-obligation membership fee, and two blocks from my older daughter’s therapist, whom she sees regularly. But I have a debilitating medical condition called scoliosis, and I can’t afford the regular massages and chiropractic care that I would need to treat it. The pain at night is so great, it leaves me exhausted. And that in turn leads me to slump into a depressed state, worried that I’ve taken on too much as a single mother, that my life is too much for me to handle. Then the mom guilt starts to set in. “Am I a good mother if I don’t have the energy to deal with taking them to special events?” “Am I a good mother if I only take them to the park but don’t play with them?”

Whenever I talk to friends about this, they have a lot of suggestions, ranging from “Go get a massage” to “Have you called that therapist I suggested yet?” But these activities are too indulgent, too expensive. They require child care, and if I have child care available, then I need to work. End of discussion.

There was a time not too long ago when my mind and body could rest. When my older daughter was younger, she refused to nap unless I took her for a drive. At times, I’d pull up to a scenic view, and in the era before smartphones, would sit and read a book, or close my eyes and listen to the radio.

For people living in poverty, those small breaks make a huge difference.

“We can take what I call mini-vacations,” says Cheryl Aguilar, a social worker who works mainly with low-income populations. “Mindfulness is free and within our reach. We can dedicate as little as 5 minutes a day to deep breathing.”

Aguilar says she even instructs her clients to carve out moments for self-care in their bathrooms.

“In our breathing exercises, we focus on our breath, inhaling slowly in and out through our nose. To this we can add visualization, imagining a place that brings us tranquility and peace as we deep breath in and out or a past happy memory. We can do a variation to our breathing exercises reciting positive affirmations about ourselves or reflecting on things that are going right in our lives,” she says.

Several organizations across the country are starting to realize the need for self-care among vulnerable populations. The San Francisco Public Library started a program where a social worker works with homeless clients to help them find food, housing, and mental health treatment. Nonprofits in Oregon and Mississippi offer free yoga classes to people who otherwise couldn’t afford them with the idea that breathing exercises and simple visualization techniques help reduce stress, anxiety and depression.

It’s not often that I find a chance to take a long shower, let alone a yoga class, and hygiene is arguably a very basic form of self-care. As I write this, I am wearing the clothes I slept in. I didn’t brush my teeth before bed because my toddler started crying last night and I fell asleep nursing her.

This is my life. I do what needs to get done without taking time to relax. I spend my time pushing through challenges, then collapsing at the end of the day. It’s time for me to turn to the little moments and think about self-care in those five-minute intervals. Maybe before I pick up my daughter from daycare, I will just sit in the park and breathe—before the dinner, bath, and bedtime chaos commences.



Paul Ryan’s Own District Disproves Everything He Says About Poverty

In Racine, Wisconsin, it is clear that a community was abandoned.

On either side of Memorial Drive, one after another, are relics of better days: massive brick factories now closed, sprawling warehouses deserted, empty lots, boarded-up buildings. Rusted water towers and aged smokestacks rise from industrial rooftops, like sentries standing guard long after they served their duty. Racine Steel Casings, Case Tractors, Sealed Air, Jacobsen Textron, Golden Books, Young Radiator—once-great employers, all gone, but not forgotten by locals.

“We were known for making things here,” said Democratic State Representative Cory Mason, a fifth-generation Racine resident who has represented his neighbors in the Wisconsin Statehouse for 10 years. “You could graduate from high school, get a union job, and send your kids to college. For most of the 20th century, that was what Racine was like.”

But in recent decades, as trade deals shipped most of the middle class jobs overseas, recessions hit, and labor protections deteriorated, that kind of shared prosperity vanished. Now many residents work in the service industry and can barely get by.

As a result, more than 21 percent of the city’s residents live in poverty, and it cuts across demographics—including 22 percent of whites, 23 percent of African-Americans, and 28 percent of Hispanics.  Racine has the highest unemployment among large cities in the state. The school district serves approximately 20,000 students, and between 1,000 and 1,500 are homeless for all or part of the year.

Racine also lies in House Speaker Paul Ryan’s district, and Mason suggested that Ryan doesn’t seem to adapt his agenda to the hardship people are experiencing.

“Congressman Ryan can’t have it both ways,” he said.  “He can’t be the guy for the trade deals that move the middle class jobs away and be the guy who’s opposed to raising the minimum wage, and then say that we need to take safety net programs away.”

Kelly Gallaher, a community organizer with Racine’s Community for Change, put it a little more bluntly: “How do you take away half of our manufacturing jobs and then say poverty is some moral failing?”


On Saturday morning, in Speaker Ryan’s hometown of Janesville, a dozen people lined up outside of Echo food bank a half hour before it opened.

Janesville plays a central role in Ryan’s rhetoric.  In a recent commencement speech he delivered at Carthage College, he said: “I live with my family in Janesville. Every weekend I am here with my family. Yesterday was turkey hunting and track meet and then dinner at my mom’s.”

There is an idyllic quality to Ryan’s anecdotes, and on one side of the Rock River that snakes through town, you can see why: stately homes, charming shops downtown, bustling commercial activity.

But on the other side of the river, where Echo is located, the damaging effects of lost jobs and low wages are on full display: dilapidated and boarded up houses, vacant retail spaces, the palpable tension of people struggling to simply make ends meet.

“How do you take away half of our manufacturing jobs and then say poverty is some moral failing?”
– Kelly Gallaher

Within an hour of Echo’s opening, about 30 people were seated inside, waiting for their number to be called so they could meet with a case manager and then visit the pantry.  People continued to stream in, and most did not want to speak with a reporter.  As one young woman said, “It’s hard enough just to be here. I don’t want my picture all over some newspaper.”

But Robert, who works for Walmart, shared his story.  He has a 45-minute commute to his job, and this March his car slid off the road in the snow and hit a tree.  He no longer has reliable transportation and he and his family were recently evicted. They relocated, but now face a high electric bill.

He said that what people in the area need more than anything are good jobs, or training for good jobs, especially if Ryan wants to reduce the use of food stamps and other work supports that are needed in a low-wage economy.  He recounted that at a Labor Day parade a couple years ago people held posters that read, “We Needs Jobs in Janesville.” Ryan walked in a different direction.

“The people with posters ran after him so that he could see,” said Robert.


Peter and his 9-year-old daughter, Love, met us at the Halo homeless shelter back in Racine.  They had recently returned from 10 months in Chicago, where Peter cared for his mother who is diabetic while working as a driver of a medical supplies van.  When his mother was stable, Peter and Love returned to Racine and moved in with his girlfriend. But she had fallen behind on rent due to her own hospitalization with sickle cell anemia, and they were evicted from the apartment.

Peter and Love slept in his car until they discovered Halo. The organization found them a permanent, subsidized house for which Peter now pays 30 percent of his income.

He obtained work operating a forklift, but the work dried up and he was laid off at the end of May. Peter described himself as “very skilled,” and was confident he would quickly find another job given his experience as a commercial vehicle driver, medical assistant, machine operator, and working in community-based residential facilities. He had filled out 100 job applications in the past week, and got two job interviews. He expected an offer for work in Kenosha, but was concerned about the commute in traffic and time away from his daughter.


“My biggest problem is I want to get a job around here—I probably won’t be able to find one,” he said.  “I don’t know why it’s so hard to get a job in Racine.”

Part of the reason he can’t find a job with a good wage in Racine might be that his skillset doesn’t match the limited number of high-tech manufacturing jobs that remain in the city. In better times, Peter might have been able to return to school for those jobs. Mason said that until 1980 there was no tuition for technical colleges in the state.  But the state and federal governments stopped making the necessary investments, and now people who are struggling are expected to rack up $20,000 in debt in some cases to return to school.


At the Racine Interfaith Center, 20-year-old Valeria and her father Gabriel—both undocumented—talked about their family’s struggles and the need for immigration reform.

They moved to Racine 16 years ago, and without a Social Security card, Gabriel said he is only able to work minimum and low-wage jobs “that other people don’t want.”

For the past five years, he has worked at a foundry melting metals for reuse.  It’s known as “the little Hell” because in the summertime, when it hits 80 degrees outside, it is 130 degrees inside the foundry.  Prior to this job Gabriel worked at a duck farm, doing 12-hour shifts with just two breaks—30 minutes for lunch, and 10 minutes for the bathroom.  If workers attempted to take another break they were sent home.

Because of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), Valeria is able to get higher quality jobs than her father, and currently works in sales. College, on the other hand, has had to wait, since Governor Scott Walker repealed in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants in 2009.

Valeria has lived in Ryan’s district since the age of three, and has met with him through her activism in the immigration reform movement. She is frustrated with his pledges to support immigrants and subsequent actions that she feels demonstrate a lack of commitment.

“I’ve met with him lots of time, face-to-face,” she said.  “One time I was telling him my parents are living on a low wage and we can’t live like this.  And he said, ‘Well why can’t they get a better job?’ And he knows they can’t get a better job because they don’t have a Social Security card.”


So what would Paul Ryan do if he wanted to address poverty in Janesville and throughout his district in a serious way?

Gallaher suggested the Speaker might start by visiting those who are struggling right in his backyard.

“If Paul Ryan wants to talk about poverty, he doesn’t have to go more than a mile from his house to talk with people who can tell him specifically how they found themselves living in their car, or without a job,” she said.

Representative Mark Pocan, whose district borders Janesville and who shares Rock County with Ryan, thinks that the ideas Ryan and other conservatives keep introducing “are really more stealth ways to cut programs that assist people in poverty.”

According to Pocan, the most important thing elected leaders can do in the fight against poverty is help people get jobs with family-supporting wages.  That means investing in things like childcare, job training, apprenticeship programs, higher education, and infrastructure; raising the minimum wage, and supporting collective bargaining.

But if Ryan’s latest poverty plan is any indication, he won’t be supporting a bold anti-poverty agenda any time soon. His plan calls for cuts to much of what remains of the safety net for his constituents. It includes cuts to unemployment assistance, phasing out the Head Start program, and rolling back federal Pell Grants for students trying to pursue higher education.  It does little to nothing to create jobs or raise wages. In fact, it looks a lot like this year’s House Republican budget—which gets more than 60 percent of its cuts from programs that help low- and moderate-income Americans, while protecting tax cuts for the very wealthy.

Finally, the Speaker’s plan demonstrates this: his enduring disconnect from the people struggling in his own district and across America.

Jeremy Slevin and Alyssa Peterson contributed reporting to this article. Photography and video by Jeremy Slevin. 



Nightly Newscasts Have Virtually Ignored Poverty in 2016. Here’s Why.

One in two Americans will experience poverty or near poverty during their working years. But you wouldn’t know that from watching the news.

Nightly news broadcasts on the three major television networks barely mentioned the 47 million Americans living in poverty in the first quarter of 2016. According to a new report from Media Matters for America, NBC Nightly News ran just two segments on the topic in the first three months of this year. What’s worse, ABC and CBS failed to cover the issue entirely.

Even when it comes to income inequality—a trend gaining increasing media attention—the networks fell down on the job. NBC aired just 5 segments on the topic (out of hundreds), compared to just one from CBS Evening News and zero on ABC’s World News Tonight.

Cable outlets and Sunday shows performed marginally better, as Fox News and MSNBC each aired 32 segments on inequality and CNN ran 17. But less than half of those—48 segments across all three cable networks—focused on those most acutely affected by income inequality: Americans living in poverty. And, it should be noted, cable news outlets have 24 hours of airtime to fill—a total of 48 segments among thousands of hours of coverage hardly amounts to significant media attention.


This should come as no surprise. A separate survey of nightly newscasts in 2015 found that economic stories received less coverage than in any year since 1988. Of the economic stories that were covered, very few focused on poverty. The top economic story of the last year? The stock market.

And the guests discussing issues of inequality and poverty are hardly representative of those experiencing it. Women accounted for less than a third of guests during segments on inequality or poverty on TV News programs, despite the fact that women are more likely to experience poverty at every stage of life.

One simple explanation? The 2016 election. The presidential race has been the most-covered story of the year—with one candidate, in particular, occupying the lion’s share of coverage. Donald Trump has received more earned media coverage than every other candidate combined in 2016. His candidacy alone is on track to earn more than double all media coverage of the economy in 2015.

And a deeper dive shows that most of the limited coverage of poverty came in the context of presidential elections. Interviews with Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders accounted for six of the nine Sunday show segments mentioning poverty.

While the data speaks to the TV news’s indifference to issues that affect low income Americans, it also proves that presidential campaigns—and the activists, operatives, and public thinkers who influence those campaigns—have an increasingly outsized ability to steer that coverage.

Another silver lining? TV news is dying. 35 percent of millennials (18- to 29-year-olds) found social media to be the most helpful new source in 2016. In contrast, just 12 percent say cable TV news was the most helpful. And at 4 percent, network news barely registers. While cable news is still the most popular source among older age groups, all trend lines point toward the growth of mobile and video content in the future.

As the TV audience shrinks, online outlets are filling the void. The list of top 50 online news outlets is littered with news organizations who eschew horse race coverage of the election in favor of substantive coverage. Not-for-profit outlets like The Marshall Project, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, and this very site all take different approaches to covering issues that affect low-income Americans.

So while the current TV landscape may look bleak for Americans working in poverty, the future of news is bright.