Paul Ryan has long been known as the GOP’s budget guru. With the release of his new report on expanding opportunity in America — the most ambitious conservative anti-poverty agenda since the mid-1990s — he is on the cusp of becoming something much more than that.
Loved by the right and loathed by the left, Ryan has been the architect of the most consequential Republican domestic policy initiatives of the Obama era. In spirit if not in name, Ryan spent much of President Obama’s first term as the leader of the opposition, rallying Republicans against Obamacare and in favor of long-term spending reductions. His controversial calls for entitlement and tax reform as chairman of the House Budget Committee were singled out by the president for over-the-top denunciation. In the spring of 2012, well before Ryan was named the Republican vice-presidential nominee, the president went so far as to characterize the Wisconsin congressman’s budget proposal as “thinly-veiled Social Darwinism.”
And yet Ryan soldiered on. As Mitt Romney’s running mate, Ryan often seemed ill-at-ease, uncomfortable in the role of attack dog. Those close to Ryan maintained that he would have been far more comfortable doing more listening than talking, and getting a feel for communities across the country still reeling from the lingering effects of the Great Recession. Once the campaign drew to a close, Ryan decided to do just that. He retreated from his role as the Republican Party’s chief intellectual strategist to think hard about the problems plaguing America’s most vulnerable neighborhoods and families. With the help of Bob Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, Ryan and his team traveled across the country to find community groups, churches and local governments that were working to better the lives of the poor, and to learn about the obstacles they faced and how the federal government might lend a hand.
Ryan’s ultimate aim has been to find a new approach to combating entrenched poverty. In March, the House Budget Committee released a richly-detailed report on federal anti-poverty efforts, and the many ways they’ve failed to help poor families achieve economic independence. But the report was more of an autopsy on a half-century’s worth of failed programs and frustrated ambitions, not a new agenda in itself. With this week’s report, Ryan has gone further.
Though Ryan is known for having devised budgets designed to shrink deficits by aggressively — some would say too aggressively — trimming the growth of Medicaid and domestic discretionary spending in the coming years, the first and most important thing to note about Ryan’s new anti-poverty agenda is that it is deficit-neutral. Rather than reduce anti-poverty spending in the immediate future, Ryan’s proposal aims to make anti-poverty spending more effective by leveraging the strengths of the federal government (the resources at its disposal) and of states, local governments, and private organizations (their local knowledge). Eventually, more effective anti-poverty spending will yield savings by helping women and men trapped in poverty become solidly middle-income workers who will pay more in taxes than they will collect in benefits. But Ryan’s proposal recognizes that helping families achieve this goal will take time and resources.