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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014

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In Milwaukee Buzz Commentary

Columnist Jay Bullock offers 100 things Paul Ryan could have proposed in this most recent version but didn't that might actually help the poor. (PHOTO: Christopher Halloran /

100 things (give or take) Paul Ryan could have proposed to help end poverty but

I'm not (that) vain, but I was pleased to see last week's column, on the Common Core State Standards, reach No. 4 on OnMilwaukee's "Most Clicked" list. I appreciate that people were interested in what someone like me, a teacher on the front lines of the CCSS fight, had to say.

But I couldn't claw my way any higher; the top three spots were solidly occupied by articles with titles like "100 Things to Do in Milwaukee this Summer." You have spoken, Milwaukee, and now I know what you really like to read: lists. I will endeavor to make all my columns lists now.

Last week, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Janesville) set forth another in his continuing series (like Harry Potter, but with more magical thinking) of budget committee plans designed to "help" the poor. I'd like to offer 100 things Paul Ryan could have proposed in this most recent version but didn't that might actually help the poor.

1. A minimum wage increase

This seems like a no-brainer. The federal minimum wage is a paltry $7.25, in inflation-adjusted dollars the same as it was the year Ryan was first elected to his House seat. Ryan's annual salary has gone up $40,000 in that time -- the equivalent of working 106 hours a week every week at minimum wage. Earlier this year, the Congressional Budget Office indicated that a boost in the minimum wage to $10.10 would boost about 900,000 workers over the poverty line.

I know what you're thinking, at least the Ryan fans in my audience, which is that raising the minimum wage would hurt the poor, because Colonel Sanders would have to lay off many of the single mothers slinging his chicken rather charge a bit more for a bucket or, Reagan forbid, shave the profit margin.

But luckily we have science! A study out just days before Ryan's plan shows that in 13 states that raised their minimum wages on Jan. 1 this year, job growth outpaced the national average. Now, admittedly, we're talking about growth of 0.85 percent for those states versus 0.61 percent for the whole of the country, but the data are pretty clear here that an increased minimum wage does not create an unemployment spike that would completely tank the economy. And an extra quarter-percent of job growth nation-wide is scores of thousands of additional jobs that, potentially, we are missing out on.

2. Better regulation of low-wage work

Raising the minimum wage is one thing, and it will provide a tangible benefit to those working places like retail or elsewhere in the service industry. But those low-wage workers also face a variety of incredible challenges in our present regulatory environment, which gives near-complete deference to employers over their workers

For example, working hours can be irregular. Hourly workers at WalMart or McDonald's may be assigned 30 hours one week and 16 the next, making it hard for those who live paycheck to paycheck to do any kind of budgeting. Morning shifts, evening shifts, and night shifts assigned seemingly at random make it difficult to arrange child care in advance. And more: shift schedules get posted at the last minute, and day-to-day, workers can be told to stay later than scheduled or sent home early.

As a University of Chicago economist put it, "It's a trend in business to pass risk and variation in consumer demand onto workers, particularly those in lower-level jobs." The result is workers whose family life is in a constant state of flux and disruption, and short of quitting, there's nothing these workers can do to change it, as all the power is in the hands of management.

In a perfect world -- well, my perfect world -- Paul Ryan would propose ways to make it easier to unionize workplaces like this so workers could bargain for some certainty in their schedules. But short of that, some sensible regulation on employers of hourly workers that restores some balance and certainty to low-wage workers' lives would go a long way.

3. Boost federal funding for high-poverty schools

Every few weeks when I'm talking about the Milwaukee Public Schools, online or in real life, some idiot busts out that MPS is the fourth highest-spending district in the country. That is simply not true.

But it is true that MPS spending is high, much higher in fact than its property tax base would suggest is possible. But the spending is high because, despite the mendacity and austerity of many in government today, there is a general consensus that harder-to-teach children require greater resources. But MPS's per-student spending is below some of its far less-needy neighbor districts, exacerbating what I like to call the "resource gap." (There's more about that at the last link.)

And for those who are already scrolling down to comment that "more money is not the answer!!!!!": Please feel free to explain why low-poverty school districts bother to spend at a greater rate than MPS does if the money doesn't make a difference.

4. Free money

Giving people money is the best way to fight poverty. Consider, for example, that Social Security is the single most effective anti-poverty program the federal government has ever undertaken (it keeps 22 million people -- including a million children -- out of poverty). The Earned Income Tax Credit is also a form of giving people people free money, and Paul Ryan's plan expands it. This is smart.

But the crux of Ryan's plan is not so smart. Here's Slate commenter Jamelle Bouie: Ryan "wants poor families to work with government agencies or charitable nonprofits to craft 'life plans' as a condition of receiving federal assistance under his proposed 'opportunity grants.' … At a minimum, these life plans would include 'a contract outlining specific and measurable benchmarks for success,' a 'timeline' for meeting them, 'sanctions' for breaking them, 'incentives for exceeding the terms of the contract,' and 'time limits' -- presumably independent of actual program limits -- for 'remaining on cash assistance.'"

The EITC, in contrast, asks for one thing -- recipients need to have a job.

Bouie goes on to point out that there is no evidence that a lack of such "life plans" is the cause of poverty or its persistence. Further, it's really quite patronizing to suggest that poor people are too stupid to know they're poor or, as many of Ryan's compatriots believe, enjoy being poor.

Research is clear that long-term poverty -- that which might be caused by poor life-planning skills and could be intergenerational -- is not the primary problem. Census data show that just three percent of the poor are "adult, able-bodied, non-student poor who lack personal market income" (that is, a job) in a given year. These are the people who might, but probably won't, benefit from Ryan's life-coaching plan. But the other 97 percent of people in poverty could be at risk because in exchange for this life-planning business, Ryan's plan upends almost everything there is about existing federal anti-poverty programs.

Better than all that life planning is simply more and better free money, and I mean cash, not food stamps or heating assistance or whatever other restricted payout you can imagine. Give people who need it money and almost all of the time they will spend it on what they need rather than waste it. This is the lesson of the EITC, after all. I'm not saying it will be easy or inexpensive, though there will be a multiplier effect such as no exists with food stamps (a dollar spent in food stamps generates $1.73 in economic activity).

Okay, that's four things, not 100 things, and I've already hit my word count for the week. But I will trust you, readers, to extrapolate from these five to 95 more things Paul Ryan could do but doesn't.


fetlarpo | July 30, 2014 at 7:00 p.m. (report)

Lets live in Jays world. Jay has decided as King to raise all minimum wage jobs to $20 an hour. What King Jay does not tell you is many corporate union jobs are based on the minimum wage. So who makes out? Can you spell T-E-A-C-H-E-R-S. Do you really think government jobs and corporate union jobs are going to stand by and let a McDonalds employee make $20 an hour. It is stated clearly in most union contracts that if the minimum wage rises then union salaries move up lock step. Higher union wages lead to more goodies to Madison and D.C bosses in the form of union dues.

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AndrewJ | July 30, 2014 at 11:05 a.m. (report)

"4. Free money" Great googly moogly. Teach a man to fish, and he can eat for a lifetime. Give a man a fish, and he'll show up tomorrow asking for more fish. Figure it out.

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topgiuide | July 30, 2014 at 9:41 a.m. (report)

Like all Democrats your stratagem is to take more money and accomplish less. I am sick and tired of you whiners and complainers wringing your hands because you don't think you have been given enough money. The well is dry, idiot! Get over it. Make do with what you've got.

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