On Trial: Lyndon Johnson's Anti-Poverty Program

Paul Ryan asks whether the federal government’s welfare programs are helping or hindering the poor Mary F. Calvert/Reuters

Should we keep anti-poverty programs? Or should we cut them?

That was the underlying question at a contentious event Wednesday that pitted Republicans' belief that the government's effort to help the poor are hurting them against Democrats defending the worth of federal anti-poverty programs.

Representative Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, the House Budget Committee chairman famous for his austere budget proposals, has decided to tackle the problem of poverty. He believes President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty program, now in its 50th year, isn't cutting it.

In preparation for an upcoming major policy statement on poverty he has promised, Ryan called a hearing of the Budget Committee Wednesday to discuss, as he titled the hearing, "A Progress Report on the War on Poverty: Lessons from the Frontlines." Though Ryan billed the hearing as a chance simply to "hear from people who have been fighting poverty on the front lines," partisan tensions surrounding the issue soon rose to the surface.

It didn't take long before Democrats began attacking Ryan and his fellow Republicans for slashing aid to the poor in their latest budget, passed on a party-line vote in April. According to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, it will cut $3.3 trillion from programs that help people of limited means over the next 10 years, meaning that two thirds of the cuts in Ryan's budget come from programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—commonly called food stamps—Pell Grants to help students afford college and Medicaid, the health care program for the poor. Republicans contend that much poverty spending is wasteful and ineffective and should be reduced.

"I am glad that Paul Ryan wants to focus on poverty," Rep. Gwen Moore, a Democrat from Ryan's state of Wisconsin and a member of the Budget Committee said the day before the hearing. She predicted the meeting would be used "to demonstrate or prove that the War on Poverty hasn't done well so that he can sometimes justify the kinds of draconian cuts that he's proposing in his budget."

As witnesses for the hearing, Ryan invited two community organizers whose work he has recently become acquainted with—stories in the Washington Post and on BuzzFeed have documented Ryan's recent ventures into poor neighborhoods—to share their thoughts about poverty with his colleagues.

First witness was Robert Woodson, who heads the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise and whom Ryan calls "a great friend." The second was Bishop Dr. Shirley Holloway, who works with the poor in Washington, D.C. through her rehabilitation organization House of Help City of Hope. Both work primarily with people who struggle with drug addiction, who served time in jail, have mental disabilities, or are homeless—those most in need of special attention to climb out of poverty.

Both Woodson and Holloway were critical of the federal government's anti-poverty programs and spoke critically about wasting government funds. "I think it is a false dichotomy to assume that if you care for the poor you spend more, if you don't you spend less," Woodson told the committee.

Holloway, who has served more than 40,000 people in nearly two decades in D.C., echoed that sentiment. "I find that love is greater than any dollar," she said. "What we do is we build a relationship. And government agencies can't do that. They're a number, they're a ticket, you know, sign your name. But when you come into facilities like mine, you're not a number, you're not a statistic, you're a person."

These pronouncements delighted Republicans on the committee. Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Indiana, called Woodson a "breath of fresh air" for saying, as Rokita put it, that "it's not about more money." He then turned to Holloway. "Your quote, bishop, about that a government program can't produce a relationship, can't produce a bond, I think is right on."

Rokita then produced a bit of a stir when he used the last three seconds of his five minutes of questioning to address the Democratic members' witness, Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, who vocally defended War on Poverty programs like Head Start and food stamps.

"A heavy-handed federal response to poverty only exacerbates the problem," Rokita said. Then, turning to the witnesses, he said, "Your work is great, please adapt to it, Mrs. Edelman."

"No, Sir," Edelman responded.

Democrats on the committee celebrated Woodson's and Holloway's successes, but unlike the Republicans, stressed that they were not a substitute for programs like food assistance. "It's very good to hear about such successful programs. I want to commend all of your for this," said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-California. "But we also need public policies that provide opportunity for all."

"We are the Budget Committee," Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, and the top Democrat on the committee said during his five minutes. "You are here just three weeks after the House of Representatives passed the budget that in the view of many people including myself will have a devastating impact on people in poverty." Van Hollen then pointed out that both Woodson and Holloway receive public funding, some from the federal government, to finance their programs.

Democrats also stressed that while the poverty hearing stretched into its third hour, Senate Republicans successfully blocked a bill in the upper chamber to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $10.10 per hour.

"Many of us believe that if someone works hard all day long, all year round, he or she should be able to enough to keep their family out of poverty," Van Hollen said.