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Rep. Paul Ryan misused data to show poverty programs don’t work, say economists he cited

By Travis Gettys
Tuesday, March 4, 2014 12:50 EDT
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Paul Ryan speaks to MSNBC
 
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Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) misrepresented or misunderstood the data he cited in his exhaustive critique of the federal safety net, said some of the economists he cited in his 204-page report.

The former vice presidential candidate relied heavily on academic research for his report, “The War On Poverty: 50 Years Later,” which was released Monday and noted the poverty rate remained stuck at 15 percent – the highest in a generation.

“And the trends are not encouraging,” Ryan wrote. “Federal programs are not only failing to address the problem. They are also in some significant respects making it worse. Changes are clearly necessary, and the first step is to evaluate what the federal government is doing right now.”

But some authors of that research said Ryan apparently left out or ignored statistics that showed federal anti-poverty programs worked exactly as they were intended, reported The Fiscal Times.

For example, the Republican lawmaker left off data measured in a recent study of the two most successful years in President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty to argue that federal efforts hadn’t worked.

Researchers at the Columbia Population Research Center examined the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), which factors in government benefits such as food stamps and the earned-income tax credit, and found the poverty rate had dropped from 26 percent in 1967 to 15 percent in 2012.

But Ryan only cited data from 1969 onward, noted one of the Columbia study’s authors, ignoring 36 percent of the total decline.

“It’s technically correct, but it’s an odd way to cite the research,” said Jane Waldfogel, a professor at Columbia University. “In my experience, usually you use all of the available data. There’s no justification given. It’s unfortunate because it really understates the progress we’ve made in reducing poverty.”

Ryan also cites the same research paper to support his claim that a 1996 welfare reform program caused a decline in child poverty, but its lead author said the lawmaker had ignored a major expansion in the earned-income tax credit in 1993 and the economic expansion at the time.

“While our data can’t disentangle those three things, attributing the decline in poverty after 1993 to the welfare reform of 1996 seems to go beyond what the data show,” said Columbia researcher Chris Wimer.

Another researcher said Ryan misstated the findings in one of her papers on the effects of housing assistance on labor.

Barbara Wolfe, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, told The Fiscal Times that Ryan’s report misstated by $260 the average annual decline in earnings in the first year of voucher assistance and by $229 in the five years afterward.

“Our findings are a decrease of $598 NOT his $858 and in five years the decrease we estimate is $47.46 (which is not statistically different from zero),” Wolfe said in an email.

She also noted that Ryan’s paper ignored another study by the same researchers that found “the housing program has more benefits than costs so focusing on only one outcome is insufficient from a policy perspective.”

Wolfe also objected to the Wisconsin lawmaker’s use of another study she wrote, saying Ryan had misrepresented its narrow and now obsolete findings about some Medicaid recipients prior to the 1996 welfare reform bill.

Ryan cited a study by Jeffrey Brown and Amy Finkelstein on Medicaid’s effect on private long-term care insurance to claim an “implicit tax” of up to 90 percent is passed along to consumers who purchase private plans.

But Brown, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said Ryan ignored data that show other factors would limit the size of the private market even if Medicaid was reformed.

A spokesperson said Ryan welcomed the criticism because it encouraged debate about federal anti-poverty programs.

“This report will help start the conversation,” Ryan himself said Monday. “It shows that some programs work; others don’t. And for many of them, we just don’t know.”

 
 
 
 
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