U.S. Republican Paul Ryan wants choice in delivering aid to poor

WASHINGTON, July 24 Thu Jul 24, 2014 9:00am EDT

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WASHINGTON, July 24 (Reuters) - Aiming to shake up the debate over fighting poverty, Republican Representative Paul Ryan on Thursday called for charities, community groups and even for-profit firms to compete with government in spending taxpayer money to aid the poor.

Presenting his plan for a sweeping revamp of social safety net programs, Ryan said he wanted to give families more choice in how they receive taxpayer-funded assistance. He proposed replacing some 11 programs ranging from food stamps to housing vouchers with "opportunity grants" given to states to tailor aid to individual needs.

The plan would shift the federal government's anti-poverty role largely to one of vetting state programs to distribute aid, and they would have to give the poor a choice of providers.

"There wouldn't just be a federal agency or a state agency," Ryan said in remarks prepared for delivery to the American Enterprise Institute. "Instead, they could choose from a list of certified providers. We're talking non-profits, or for-profits, or even community groups unique to your neighborhood."

He described the case of a 24-year-old single mother of two with a high school education, two years of retail work experience and dreams of one day being a teacher. Instead of relying on food stamps, housing vouchers and welfare checks, she could go to a social services provider, sit down with a case manager to develop an "opportunity plan" to meet her goals, targeting money where it is needed most.

This could result in payments for transportation and child care so that she could meet her goals of going to college while working in retail. The catch: she would have to sign a contract and meet certain benchmarks for success, such as learning new skills or seeking work. Failure would means a cut in aid while exceeding expectations would earn a bonus. There also would be a time limit on assistance.

Ryan argued that current federal programs only treat symptoms of poverty and do little to get people's lives back on track.

Ryan, the Republican Party's vice presidential candidate in 2012, is best known for his budget blueprints marked by deep domestic spending cuts. But this time, the chairman of the House Budget Committee said he wants to keep overall social safety net funding at the same levels.

Democrats were gearing up to bash the plan as a way to do away with programs that have formed the core of federal anti-poverty efforts since the 1960s.

"We will oppose any plan that uses the sunny language of 'reform' as a guise to cut vital safety-net programs," U.S. Representative Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California, and U.S. Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, wrote in an opinion piece published online on Wednesday by the Huffington Post.

Bob Woodson, who helped develop Ryan's plan as founder of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, said Ryan's grant program would be more flexible and better tailored to poor communities' needs.

"Everything is intended to reward work," said Woodson, whose tax-exempt non-profit group supports organizations in troubled neighborhoods. (Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Doina Chiacu, Bill Trott and Chizu Nomiyama)

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