In order to change the growing awareness among the general population that the GOP is too extreme and doesn’t care about people, Paul Ryan is attempting to alter this perception and enhance the GOP’s image by pretending to “solve” the issue of poverty. Naturally, his first step is to seek the assistance from right-wing think tanks. In this case, Paul Ryan is recruiting the assistance of Scott Winship, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, who focuses on issues of income inequality and economic mobility.
In a recent interview, Scott Winship was asked how concerned he was with the disparity between the top 1% and everyone else. Although he acknowledged that income inequality is real, he stated, “the evidence does not make me nervous that it’s a problem.” He went on to say, “if you look at inequality between 1950 and today, it’s been not nearly so severe as between 1980 and today.” This is correct, but he failed to explain why income inequality has been so severe since 1980. In order to gain an accurate understanding of why income inequality (or lack of equality of opportunity) is a problem, it is essential to compare each of these time periods rather than lump them together in an attempt to distract people from realizing the truth.
There is a stark difference in how income gains in this country were distributed between those at the top and everyone else during these two time periods, which clearly impacted one’s ability to climb the economic ladder (ie., economic mobility). As indicated in this interactive graph from the Economic Policy Institute, from 1950 to 1980 the bottom 90% of workers collectively shared two thirds of all income gains, while the top 10% took in the remaining third. What about the period from 1980 to 2008? As it turns out, the bottom 90% collectively shared only 2%, while the super rich, or top 1% took in two-thirds of all income gains! This is the same percentage the bottom 90% previously shared when equality of opportunity was alive and well.
With so little income being available to the vast majority of workers in this country since 1980, no wonder the American dream is dead. The rungs on the ladder of economic mobility have been deliberately broken over time to the point that most of the rungs are now completely missing! Scott Winship even acknowledges as much by citing a statistic showing that if you happen to be born in the bottom fifth, there’s a 40% chance you will end up there as an adult, and only a 13% chance you can make it to the top two fifths. Despite this admission, however, he stated, “contrary to what the left says, the evidence doesn’t clearly indicate that mobility has declined over time.” Of course it has, especially since there is only a 5% chance this same poor person can make it to the top fifth.
Perhaps the reason he is in such denial has to do with the stated mission of his employer, rather than dealing with the reality of the devastating effects income inequality has on the vast majority of Americans. The Manhattan Institute is a tax exempt, right-wing think tank with the stated mission of developing and disseminating ideas that enhance “economic choice” and “individual responsibility”.
These two “frames” conveniently allow Scott Winship, Paul Ryan, and other conservative politicians to focus their attention and our tax dollars on blaming the victim, and hence search for solutions that address this framed version of reality. For instance, during the interview, Scott Winship was asked, “what policy ideas have you been considering with Paul Ryan? His response was, “it’s really easy to reduce poverty if you just give cash to people but obviously, that causes people to work less. It causes them to behave irresponsibly.” That’s funny, because this is precisely what has happened in the opposite direction since Ronald Reagan took office in 1980 (e.g., welfare for the rich).
Scott Winship made it a point to mention that it’s necessary to raise taxes on the middle class in order to address poverty in this country, since he claims, “you can’t do what the left wants to do and continue to think that tax increases on the rich are going to get you there.” But, this is exactly how we got there in the past, as echoed by President Obama in a speech he gave recently, and is key to how we get there in the future. It starts with reversing the devastating trend that has taken place since 1980, which involves giving cash to the super-rich (ie, tax cuts) at the expense of everyone else. It’s important to point out that the main difference between the two periods mentioned earlier involves the tax rate on the top 1%. In 1980, huge tax cuts were put in place by Ronald Reagan, dropping the tax rate on the top 1% from 70% to 28%, while doubling the tax rate on the vast majority of workers in order to pay for it. This transfer of wealth has continued to the present day, such that in 2010, 93% of all income gains went to the top 1%. This is truly startling and explains why the U.S. is no longer a country with equality of opportunity (ie., economic mobility), and instead is quickly becoming a third world country with escalating poverty rates, and accompanying social-ills.
What is Scott Winship’s advice to the GOP for resolving such issues? Instead of increasing aid to those in desperate need as a result of this transfer of wealth, Scott Winship is embracing the Paul Ryan plan to drastically cut aid to the poor, voucherize medicare, cut social security benefits, increase the retirement age to 70, as well as cutting benefits to surviving spouses, and disabled children and veterans. This key Scott Winship said, will be coming up with incentives “that are consistent with conservative values about personal responsibility and smaller government”. Therefore, when viewed through the lens of these “frames”, it is impossible to see how immoral one’s actions have become. Since Paul Ryan and Scott Winship are clearly operating under these frames, they are stuck trying to convince us that poor people are “irresponsible” and somehow to blame for their own poverty, rather than ‘seeing’ the reality that only 2% of income gains were available to share among 90% of the working population. Unfortunately, this math makes it impossible for the average worker to make it to the top regardless of how hard one is willing to work, especially if they are born into poverty.
Rather than focusing their attention on increasing equality of opportunity for all, Scott Winship and Paul Ryan believe that providing people in desperate need with vouchers will not only magically “solve” our poverty epidemic, but it will make parents take “personal responsibility” by allowing them the “economic choice” of spending a limited sum (ie., voucher) that will run out in place of guaranteed assistance. So, rather than rely on existing anti-poverty measures that are proven to be effective at reducing poverty, and leveling the playing field with progressive tax policies that will surely increase one’s chances of achieving the American dream, the GOP plan is to provide poor people with vouchers, since this approach fits the “frames” of the Manhattan Institute, and the GOP’s immoral approach to governing.