A Real Path to Prosperity: What If the Ryan Budget Followed the Evidence?

The budget proposal passed last week by the House Budget Committee is entitled “Path To Prosperity” and includes as a goal “equip Americans with the skills they need in a 21st century economy.” Those sound like the very goals that underlie our work at CLASP. Yet we and many other commentators have pointed out that the Ryan budget actually undercuts those goals, sharply reducing programs that help low-income Americans

What would a proposal look like that takes the goals of the Ryan budget seriously, following the evidence towards a real “path to prosperity?” In this commentary, I briefly outline an alternative and the evidence undergirding it.

First, such a proposal would double down on support for education, from early childhood through the post-secondary years.  Today’s generation of children faces particular barriers to achieving critical 21st century skills. Large numbers are growing up in poverty, including one quarter of the youngest children.  In the next few years, half of all children will be children of color who face long-term, systemic barriers in accessing high-quality education opportunities.

The best evidence suggests that a path to adult success requires investing in children from the very earliest years all the way through K-12 education and beyond. There are promising interventions at each key opportunity—in the earliest years, in preschool, in the early elementary grades, in middle school, in preventing high school drop-out, and reengaging students that have. Each opportunity missed creates a learning gap that makes it harder to succeed later.

While states and localities provide the bulk of education dollars, the recession took a heavy toll on their ability to expand spending to meet the new needs—and the federal government carries the burden for crucial areas, including early childhood (Head Start, Early Head Start, child care subsidies, home visiting, nutrition assistance) and help to the lowest-income children (Title 1). A serious federal budget aimed at educational opportunity would expand—not cut by billions of dollars—the so-called discretionary budget, which contains most of the federal dollars that broaden opportunity at each of these ages.

Second, a serious budget proposal would strengthen Pell grants to help low-income and non-traditional students afford postsecondary education. Nine million Americans, including 60 percent of African-Americans who graduate from college and half of Hispanic graduates, depend on Pell grants to afford school. Yet the share of college costs it covers continues to shrink. Today, the maximum Pell grant covers less than one-third of the cost of college—the smallest share since the start of the program. 

To enable far more young people and working adults not only to enroll in higher education but also to reach and complete a postsecondary credential, an evidence-based proposal would not slash Pell funding, thereby threatening completion for those students who work while in school. Instead, it would expand college access and affordability by preserving funding for financial aid—especially Pell Grants—for low-income students and provide aid more flexibly year-round to accommodate changing family and work circumstances.

Third, a proposal would recognize that for many Americans, the blockage in the path to prosperity is not a lack of desire to work—but the work itself. Millions of Americans are stuck in or near poverty either because of wages that are too low to support a family or due to inadequate and intermittent work hours. Many are also going to school or seeking training to advance in their jobs. To enable them to make ends meet and move up on the job, a serious proposal would include ideas like a minimum wage increase and expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit that supplements low-wage work. It would also strengthen, not slash, the SNAP (formerly food stamps) program, a lifeline for many working families.

Fourth, it would drop the tired suggestion to repeal the Affordable Care Act and acknowledge the role that decent health care can play in helping people follow their dreams on a “path to prosperity.” The over 7 million Americans who have purchased health insurance in the exchanges, the estimated 5 million newly eligible who have been approved for Medicaid, and millions of young people who are able to remain on their parents’ insurance now won’t have to interrupt their education, job training, or work because they can’t get help when confronting physical or mental illness. And the share of Americans who are uninsured has dropped sharply. So, those who now have health coverage don’t have to fear losing everything because of an unexpected injury or hospitalization.

A true path to prosperity means investing in education from the earliest years all the way to college, tearing down the barriers that keep low-income young people and adults from completing post-secondary education, helping working Americans make ends meet and move up on the job, and reinforcing broad access to decent health care so an illness doesn’t throw a family into crisis. Those are the choices  that should be at the core of our national agenda, state and federal, going forward.