July 24, 2014 / 2:45 PM / 5 years ago

Paul Ryan’s promising new plan to end poverty

Reihan Salam

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.

The 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

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