Paul Ryan’s promising new plan to end poverty

By Reihan Salam
July 24, 2014

Ryan speaks at the SALT conference in Las Vegas

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.

A homeless man searches for recyclable materials in a trash bucket at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New YorkThe centerpiece of Ryan’s proposal is a new Opportunity Grant pilot program, which would consolidate a number of federal programs, like the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), Section 8 housing vouchers, and public housing funds, into a single funding stream that state governments could use to help low-income families escape poverty. Instead of simply making life in low-income households more tolerable, the Opportunity Grant is premised on the idea that well-timed, targeted interventions can give low-income households the resources they need to achieve economic takeoff.

The proposal offers a useful distinction between situational poverty, in which individuals fall on hard times yet have the skills and social networks they need to climb the economic ladder, and generational poverty, in which individuals face more fundamental challenges in finding their footing in the working world. People who find themselves in situational poverty might need short-term help to get them out of a crisis, and the economic breathing room to invest in their long-term earning potential. People who find themselves in generational poverty, in contrast, might require far more comprehensive interventions that tackle several different problems at once.

The needs of poor families vary along many dimensions, and they are different in Brooklyn than in the Mississippi Delta. Some poor people need a fair bit of short-term money to, for example, cover a rental deposit on an apartment within commuting distance of job opportunities, but they have little need for ongoing assistance once they’ve wriggled free of this constraint. Others need meaningful ongoing assistance to help them overcome drug addiction or the lingering aftereffects of a chaotic upbringing.

Existing social welfare programs often fail to tease out these differences, and so poor families will often find themselves with too much of what they don’t need and too little of what they do. By granting states more flexibility, and allowing them to partner with a wide range of organizations that specialize in serving the poor, the Opportunity Grant program will harness the creativity and intelligence of the people closest to the problem.

Ryan also calls for a substantial increase in the earned-income tax credit for childless workers, modeled closely on a recent proposal by the Obama administration. The main difference between Ryan and Obama’s approach to the EITC is that Ryan favors paying for the expansion by eliminating corporate welfare and phasing out ineffective programs. Conservative Republicans have often been accused of reflexively opposing all ideas backed by the Obama administration, so the family resemblance between the two proposals is notable. In theory, at least, the idea of EITC expansion offers the possibility of bipartisan common ground.

And Ryan draws attention to a number of other barriers to upward mobility for the poor, including the rising cost of high-quality post-secondary education, the baleful effects of mass incarceration on those caught up in the criminal justice system and their families, and occupational licensing that make it difficult for poor people to secure remunerative employment. All of these are areas that have been neglected by most Republican lawmakers, and Ryan is declaring that they must become conservative priorities.

Since President Obama’s reelection, leading conservatives, led by Ryan, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and Utah Sen. Mike Lee, have been engaged in a friendly contest of domestic policy ideas. Other would-be policy innovators, like the governors of Wisconsin and Louisiana, are waiting in the wings. Rather surprisingly, 2014 has become the most fruitful year for conservative policy thinking since the late 1970s, when a small band of supply-siders, led by Jack Kemp, paved the way for Ronald Reagan’s successful 1980 presidential campaign. During the 2012 Republican presidential primaries, the candidates waged almost impressively substance-free campaigns, which steered clear of policy detail in almost every domain but taxes. It is already clear that the next battle for the Republican future will look quite different. Paul Ryan deserves much of the credit.

PHOTOS: Paul Ryan, U.S. congressman (R-WI), speaks at the SALT conference in Las Vegas May 16, 2014. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

A homeless man searches for recyclable materials in a trash bucket at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York March 22, 2014. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

12 comments

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You’re smarter than this, Mr Salam. Paul Ryan’s budget plan promises have been nothing short of ‘pants of fire’ misrepresentations and there is no reason to assume he operates differently now. You don’t have to carry the line for Republicans just because you have some conservative principles. If voters didn’t mindlessly carry the water for ‘their party’ then maybe you wouldn’t have intractable political gridlock and burgeoning extremism in America… well that and not ostracizing the best and brightest amongst you as being elitist or completely rejecting atheists (who on average are well above average intelligence, ie better apt to run a frickin country than bible clutching yokels).

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

CDN_Rebel – well said.

Posted by xyzyx | Report as abusive

CDN_Rebel makes good points regarding Ryans agenda and Salam’s lock step loyalty to his party. However, some of the findings regarding the problems faced by the impoverished are reasonable. The question really is will any GOP ever really act to accomplish an effective alteration of these issues. Historically they have not and have been prone to identifying issues and then promoting policy that actually exacerbates the problems due to their tendency to want to be cruel and force people to first accept the entirety of their political ideology. This is similar to how Christians often give bibles to starving children. They expect that before you get help, you must accept their beliefs. This is not charity or concern, this is ideological enslavement. They refuse to help those that do not become part of their vast right wing conspiracy, and so they help very few people. In fact as CDN said, they tend to inhibit the brightest since they (the brightest) are almost certainly going to reject a simplistic and limited view of the world such as held by the typical conservative. It’s just too narrow and dumb for those with a brain.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Recent Republican tickets have consisted of a mainstream Republican presidential (G.W. Bush, McCann, Romney) candidate and a wingnut vice-presidential candidate (Cheney, Palin, Ryan). Ryan has been trying to reposition himself publicly as the mainstream candidate for 2016. This article reads like a PR piece – part of the PR campaign to reposition his image.

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive

I’m from the government and I’m here to help you…

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

When you read a political post, always look for a number. Why? It gives a specific measure for evaluating how accurate the post is. I’m not talking about some (years, time,etc). clap trap. With this in mind, can you tell me what exactly (with numbers) the Ryan plan will accomplish?

Posted by 1DukeZ | Report as abusive

Its always a great idea to do the exact opposite of anything Paul Ryan has to say or do.

Posted by BLUEBLOOD | Report as abusive

hey!…Its always a great idea to do the exact opposite of anything Paul Ryan has to say or do.

Posted by BLUEBLOOD | Report as abusive

Though Ryan differentiates between generational and situation poverty, nothing is mentioned about mental illness, the infirmed, or the disabled that all lead to poverty.

Also increasing the EITC does not add value to the economy.

The real resolution is to increase wages, otherwise we will continue to increase the ranks of the working poor.

Posted by Flash1022 | Report as abusive

Why can’t anyone just propose ways to improve what we have going and fix the situations where corruption is rampant. Like fixing the corruption surrounding SS disability claims.

Why does this “richly detailed report” on the war on poverty include the EPA? This is just witch hunt material by the GOP.

The EPA is extremely critical for protecting our environment as the world gets more and more abused by new technology/chemicals/pharmaceuticals.

The GOP war on the EPA is a clear sign the GOP only cares about profits and not people..

Posted by michaelryan | Report as abusive

I see all the dems are here. Nothing will work except continuing to throw monumental amounts of money at the problem. Ryan says he has a deficit neutral plan that would consolidate a bunch of programs – makes sense to me. Consolidation would mean less money spent on administration and more left over to actually help poor people.

Posted by zotdoc | Report as abusive

Poverty won’t be “solved” by social engineering of either the left or the right – investing in better education, and long-term improvements in technology and productivity, will come closest to easing the issue.

Posted by DonD1977 | Report as abusive