Paul Ryan's Anti-Poverty Plan

by Michael Sean Winters

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Ten years ago, Democrats talked about fighting poverty and Republicans used opposition to same-sex marriage as a wedge issue to win elections. Today, Democrats use support for same-sex marriage as a wedge issue to win elections, and it is a Republican who has returned the moral imperative to combat poverty to the policy agenda in Washington. We live in interesting times.

That Republican is Congressman Paul Ryan and, heretofore, I have always found him, despite his reputation, to be a little thin, a little too tied to an ideological framework and far too detached from the real world concerns of the poor and marginalized. Yesterday, in his speech at the American Enterprise Institute, Ryan showed himself to be a true heir to his political mentor, the late Congressman Jack Kemp, someone who really does care about the poor, and who is interested in finding policies that will alleviate their plight.

Ryan set forth a bundle of proposals, some of which clearly distinguish him from his GOP colleagues, such as expanding the Earned-Income Tax Credit, and others which have the flavor of more traditional Republican ideas for altering the social safety net, such as devolving authority away from the federal government to the states and local government. He assures us that his “opportunity grants” will be different from Ronald Reagan’s “block grants,” that the funding will not be cut, and that the states cannot just use the funding as they wish. Still, Ryan seems, as my colleague Melinda Henneberger observed in this morning’s Washington Post “almost touchingly attached to the idea that local government is less corrupt than its federal counterpart.”

But, the most important idea Ryan introduced was that the opportunity grants, by bundling federal programs, would allow a person in need to come to one agency, the person in need would work with one case worker capable of providing assistance from all eleven programs, develop an assistance plan that would be suited to that person’s situation, create measurable goals for the person in need, all with the goal, not of alleviating poverty for that person, but of lifting that person out of poverty. You will see the recurrent word in that last sentence: person. While conservatives tend to worship abstract market laws, and liberals tend to adore abstract government programs, both do not start where Ryan’s views appear to start now, with the human person, facing challenging circumstances, in need of assistance but aspiring to a more sustainable, and self-sufficient life.

Some partisan Democrats pounced on Ryan. Our friends at the Center for American Progress sent out an email last night entitled “Ryan’s Rhetoric 2.0” which unfairly dismisses Ryan’s speech as a mere rhetorical device, rather than a serious policy proposal that deserves to be engaged. On his MSNBC show, Lawrence O’Donnell praised Ryan and noted, correctly, that the Democrats no longer have a Sen. Kennedy or a Sen, Moynihan, knowledgeable champions of the fight against poverty, with whom Ryan can engage. His guest, Joy-Ann Reid, suggested that Ryan sought to “micro-manage” the lives of poor people by investing so much in the development of a personal plan for each person seeking government assistance. That was not only unhelpful, it shows how out of touch she is with the lives of those in need, which are acutely frustrated by the need to go to a variety of agencies to get the assistance to which they are entitled. And, as well, not all, but many poor people could use help managing their lives.  

It is interesting that the only prime time cable news show to even mention Ryan last night (I had to make dinner in the course of the evening, and might have missed something) was O’Donnell’s show. Over at Fox, O’Reilly thought it more important to begin the night with a segment on President Obama’s fundraising trips. Sean Hannity devoted almost the entirety of his show to complaining that President Obama was undermining Israel. One of his guests – I can’t recall who – said that ever since 1948, every president had stood by Israel except Obama, which would be news to the Israelis in 1956 who thought Eisenhower cut them off at the knees during the Suez crisis, or to the Israeli officials during George H.W. Bush’s tenure which consistently felt undermined by Bush’s foreign policy. I am about as hawkishly pro-Israel as a person can be, and Hannity could turn me against the cause if I had to listen to him for more than five minutes! But, I digress. It will be interesting to see who on the Democratic side steps up to the plate and engages Ryan. It will be curious to see if the GOP and its Ministry of Propaganda at Fox engages Ryan.

I close by recalling the talk delivered by Bishop Robert McElory at John Carr’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought in Public Life at Georgetown, in which +McElroy called for Catholics to become “insurgents” within their own parties. Ryan did that yesterday. I think he has further to go: I do not see how anyone committed to Catholic social teaching can fail to see the need to raise the minimum wage, for example. But, Ryan deserves great praise for taking on the issue and for putting forward ideas and for inviting criticism and continued debate. Shame on the Democrats who would be more intent on throwing Ryan’s words back in his face the moment they are uttered because they do not go far enough. Shame on the Republicans who will, perhaps not publicly, denounce Ryan as a starry-eyed dreamer, who has probably been reading Pope Francis too much. Shame on all of us if we do not seize this moment to remind the American Christian community that Matthew 25 says nothing about a rising middle class, and that we welcome anyone, but most especially Cong. Ryan, to the discussion our nation has for too long avoided: How do we continue the fight against poverty in ways that will actually help the poor?

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