Paul Ryan Lays Out the 'Way Forward' on Poverty
Republicans badly need this more welcoming message on the subject.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) introduced a sweeping proposal this week to reform how federal and state governments address the issue of poverty in America. His plan, “Expanding Opportunity in America,” looks into a number of ways to create new programs and bolster some existing federal programs while eliminating others that just don’t work. Ryan is becoming the go-to Republican on poverty policy, which is key for a party that needs a more welcoming message on the subject – to borrow his upcoming book title, “The Way Forward.”
The primary element of Ryan’s plan calls for the creation of Opportunity Grants that would change how the government conducts fighting poverty. This brings together 11 existing streams of federal aid – from food stamps to housing assistance – into block grants that would allow states to tailor aid packages to the poor based on individual need. States would assign a caseworker to each person applying for aid, and together the caseworker and the individual would create a plan based on short- and long-term goals. These goals would form the basis of a contract in which the states would continue to supply aid so long as the person continued to live up to their end of the agreement – whether it be finding or maintaining a job, pursuing an education or remaining drug-free.
Ryan proposes changes to the Earned Income Tax Credit. The EITC is one of the few proven ways the government has to reduce poverty and encourage work, and he wants to simplify the application process. In addition, he wants to make all childless adults over 21 eligible to apply. He suggests adding the EITC to each paycheck throughout the year, rather than distributing it as a one-time payment in each year’s tax refund.
There are a number of fixes to education aid in the proposal, including converting Head Start funding into a block grant to allow states to experiment with different models for early education. A big part of the primary and secondary education component is the consolidation of multiple federal programs into flexible block grants to the states, which allows for more tailored solutions at the community level. The proposal also reforms the accreditation process to allow more institutions and specific courses to gain accreditation, thereby increasing the education options for students seeking federal aid.
Ryan addresses the problem of an exploding prison population and the negative effect incarceration has on upward mobility. He proposes allowing federal judges more flexibility in sentencing non-violent felons who would otherwise be subject to mandatory minimums, and he wants to tailor prison education and rehabilitation programs to those inmates most at risk for recidivism.
Ryan’s plan, which you can read in detail here, is a thoughtful consideration how to address what is wrong with federal aid to the poor. As Ryan notes, “Fifteen percent of Americans live in poverty today – over 46 million people.” In that, he sees opportunity: “There’s a vast amount of untapped potential in our country.” Federal anti-poverty programs have done little to actually reduce poverty ever since Lyndon Johnson began the so-called War on Poverty 50 years ago. Ryan’s plan calls for making aid more effective and more accountable, two goals with which Washington is not familiar.
To be sure, Democrats are already trying to shoot holes in Ryan’s plan. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, says Ryan loves block grants because they are easier to cut. Van Hollen and other House Democrats also note Ryan has proposed cutting numerous federal programs and therefore cannot be taken seriously. Only a statist would consider cost cutting a negative trait.
The fact is, many of Ryan’s proposals, like prison education and improved education funding, have already seen the light of day as individual legislative proposals that have drawn bipartisan support. Democrats don’t like his plan because it would mean lifting people out of poverty and freeing them from their poverty plantations. Ryan is also a possible 2016 presidential candidate, which makes him a prime target.
Beyond all the policy nitty gritty, the key takeaway from Ryan’s effort is that the GOP needs to do a better job of addressing poverty. Blue collar Americans need to hear that Liberty can work for them. As American Enterprise Institute fellow James Pethokoukis puts it, Ryan “sees low-income Americans as underutilized assets who need to be reintegrated into the work economy so they and America can reach full potential.” This is done, as Benjamin Franklin once said, “not [by] making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it.”