Results matter. Intentions are important, but results are what truly count. That’s why House Speaker Paul Ryan’s antipoverty legislation, authored with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, is so important. It does something welfare programs in the United States have historically avoided - it measures results.
“Ryan has said repeatedly that he believes in doing more to help the poor and has co-sponsored legislation with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) to push for evidence-based policymaking,” E.J. Dionne reported in The Washington Post recently.
That bill passed in the Senate last week.
“We won’t be able to expand opportunity in this country until we figure out which policies actually work,” Ryan said. “That’s why we need to make use of all the data we already collect, and that’s exactly what the Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission would help us do. This bill is a big step in the fight against poverty, and I want to commend Senator Murray for getting it one step closer to the finish line.”
That commission would look at the data for the country’s many assistance programs to see what works and what doesn’t.
Now, this is a positive step, and an important one. As Ryan and many other conservatives have said throughout the years, Americans are a compassionate people - but we want to be effective. Throwing money at a problem isn’t enough. Solutions must actually solve something.
Indeed, if all poverty required was an infusion of cash, we could address that easily enough. A simple check mailed to every poor family in the nation would fix everything.
There are two dangers here in Ryan’s and Murray’s bill. The first is the tendency of Washington to rely on technocrats these days - people whose command of computers and data seem wizard-like to the rest of us. Let’s establish that commission and hire the techies, but let’s not expect them to perform miracles or to have a real depth of understanding about poverty and economics.
That’s the second danger here. Poverty isn’t something that can be truly measured, in all its aspects. Programs can be measured, and effects. But poverty isn’t a simple calculation.
A far better understanding of poverty is offered by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, in their book “When Helping Hurts.”
“While poor people mention having a lack of material things, they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological and social terms,” the authors explained. “Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation and voicelessness. Low-income people daily face a struggle to survive that creates feelings of helplessness, anxiety, suffocation and separation that are simply unparalleled in the lives of the rest of humanity.”
Poverty is only ever reduced through true compassion - in that word’s original sense. In the Latin, compassion means “to suffer with” - to come alongside the sufferer, to help take up his burden. It’s a personal commitment of one person to another.
That’s hard. It’s harder than measuring data.
That’s why the Ryan-Murray bill is only a first step.