The House Budget Committee chaired by Congressman Raul Ryan released a 204-page report on federal welfare programs Monday. It provides useful discussions of 92 programs that cost taxpayers $799 billion a year.
The report drives home how immense the federal welfare state has become. You’ve probably heard of EITC, TANF, LIHEAP, and SNAP, but how about CCDF, WIA, SSBG, NSLP, SBP, CACFP, HOME, HAG, and CDBG? These are all multibillion dollar welfare programs that you as a taxpayer are funding.
The Washington Post called the Ryan report a “blistering” and “stinging” critique, but it is far from that. Indeed, Ryan’s report is a centrist analysis of welfare, not a conservative or libertarian one. The report generally points out minor problems with programs based on the polite criticisms of federal auditors and liberal researchers. The report often omits fundamental critiques of programs offered by pro-market scholars and think tanks.
Ryan’s report has 48 pages on housing programs, for example, but does not ask basic questions such as whether there are market failures that justify any of the government’s housing interventions. The Manhattan Institute’s Howard Husock has written about how private markets are able to supply low-income housing and did so historically, but Ryan’s report does not address these basic questions.
In fact, it is generally devoid of citations of conservative and libertarian think tanks. The American Enterprise Institute apparently provided input to the Ryan study, but AEI is cited once in 204 pages while liberal think tanks are cited many times.
The reliance on liberal sources appears to have led to the omission of many arguments. The report has two pages on the low-income housing tax credit, for example, but it does not mention an important critique in this AEI book, which is that developers may pocket the benefits of the program, leaving low-income renters no further ahead.
Ryan’s discussion of the WIC program does not mention that the program induces mothers to use baby formula, which is directly counter to government’s own advice about the advantages of breast milk. Similarly, Ryan’s food stamp discussion does not mention that billions of dollars are probably being spent on junk food, obviously contrary to government’s own advice on healthy eating.
When the Ryan report does cite the shortcomings of programs, it generally downplays them. For example, it says that “public housing is not the most effective method of providing low-income housing assistance.” But if you look at the historical impact of public housing, “total disaster” is a better description of the program.
The report’s section on federal job training hardly mentions the Government Accountability Office finding that “little is known about the effectiveness” of these programs. But that is a major finding — taxpayers have been paying billions of dollars a year over decades for these programs, so if the government still doesn’t know if they work, then they ought to be abolished.
The introduction to Ryan’s report does discuss general problems with welfare programs, such as work disincentives. But most of the report examines individual programs in a very accepting manner — as if we all agreed that we just need to make them work better.