CLEVELAND - Paul Ryan said today that the Republican presidential ticket will do more to help the poor in this country, declaring, "in this war on poverty, poverty is winning," and calling for a shift from federal government programs helping the poor to a community-focused model.
He said the GOP ticket would set such a model into motion if it gets to the White House.
Ryan cited the amount of money the federal government spends on "means-tested programs," saying it accounts to more than $1 trillion, or giving "every poor American a check for $22,000."
"We spend all that money attempting to fight poverty through government programs. And what do we have to show for it?" Ryan asked, saying one in six Americans are living in poverty and citing high food stamp use and high school drop-out rates.
"With a few exceptions, government's approach has been to spend lots of money on centralized, bureaucratic, top-down, anti-poverty programs," he said. "The mindset behind this approach is that a nation should measure compassion by the size of the federal government and how much it spends."
Ryan added that the GOP ticket's solution is a "balance," or, "allowing government to act for the common good, while leaving private groups free to do the work that only they can do."
"There's a vast, middle ground between the government and the individual," Ryan said at Cleveland State University. "Our families and our neighborhoods, the groups we join, our places of worship - this is where we live our lives. They shape our character, they give our lives direction and help make us a self-governing people."
The GOP vice presidential nominee praised welfare reform under President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, but said the "reform mindset hasn't been applied with equal vigor across the spectrum of our anti-poverty programs."
"In most of these programs, especially in recent years, we're still trying to measure compassion by how much government spends, not by how many people we help escape from poverty," Ryan told a crowd of about 600 people.
Ryan's plan was short on specifics, but he met with a group of community leaders in this battleground state before the address on the issues he would discuss, which also included school choice. In his speech, he promised a Romney-Ryan administration would consult those same people, saying they "share your cause and we will seek your counsel."
"For our part, should we have the chance to serve, I want you to know this," Ryan said. "We will remember your hospitality today, and it will be returned. The transformative power of your example will inform our approach to public policy. And when the question is how best to help low-income families reach for opportunity, we will not defer to the Washington-knows-best crowd. We will talk to the real experts - including many of the people who are right here in this room."
He praised his running mate, presidential nominee Mitt Romney, throughout his speech, but said sometimes the Republican Party may have "a vision for making our communities stronger," but they "don't always do a good job of laying out that vision." He said the presidential ticket wants to "change that."
Standing in front of three American flags, Ryan said Romney is a "man who could easily have contented himself with giving donations to needy causes, but everyone who knows him well will tell you that Mitt has always given his time and attention to those around him who are hurting."
Although it may seem unusual to give such an address less than two weeks before Election Day, four years ago Sarah Palin also gave a series of policy addresses in the final days, including one on support for families of special needs children.
An argument that the Republican world view will do more to help the American poor could represent an attempt by the Ryan and the Romney campaign to address the perception among voters that they lack empathy.
According to ABC News pollster Gary Langer, empathy can be a "significant independent predictor of voter preferences."
President Obama leads Romney by 7 points, 51 to 44 percent, on the question of "who better understands the economic problems people in this country are having," according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll released Wednesday.
A group called Catholics United released a scathing statement just minutes before Ryan took the stage calling the House budget chairman "nothing if not a savvy politician," and saying Ryan "would do well to abandon his un-Christian budget priorities and return to the Gospel mission of Jesus Christ."
"But, unfortunately for all of us, when reality meets his rhetoric, Rep. Ryan is shown to have no credibility when it comes to caring about the least among us," Catholics United Executive Director James Salt said in a statement. "It's clear Rep. Ryan needs to seriously examine what his faith teaches about serving those on the margins when the swing state cameras aren't rolling. It's important to remember the budget proposals he wrote in Washington cynically cut major funding to the very institutions he visits and claims are vital to protecting the powerless."
The group described itself as "a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to promoting the message of justice and the common good found at the heart of the Catholic social tradition."
Other leaders in the Catholic Church, as well as Democrats, have rejected Ryan's budget plans, which propose drastic across-the-board government spending cuts, because they would reduce funding for social programs, including cuts to food stamp (SNAP) benefits.
Ryan touched on similar issues in a speech to Georgetown University in April, when he discussed upward mobility for the poor. It was meant as a rebuttal to the Catholic criticism of his budget plan.
Ryan's address is also in the shadow of Romney's infamous "47 percent" comments, when he said, in a leaked video from a $50,000-a-head fundraising dinner in Boca Raton, Fla., that 47 percent of people, who don't pay income taxes, will never vote for him because they are "dependent" and "victims."
Ryan has added to image problems concerning the ticket's policies toward the poor. The campaign suffered a photo-op misstep when he was criticized for appearing to scrub clean pots at a soup kitchen in Youngstown, Ohio. Ryan was accused of reaching for a photo instead of actually wanting to help homeless people.
Ryan was introduced by Jimmy Kemp, the son of Ryan's mentor, the late former Rep. Jack Kemp, R-N.Y., who was known as a "bleeding heart conservative," a Republican working with those battling poverty. In the early 1990s, Kemp was the chairman of the Economic Empowerment Task Force, a Cabinet subgroup formed to develop antipoverty policy.
Ryan will head back to Ohio this weekend for an eight-stop bus tour all over the critical state. A poll out Wednesday from Time magazine had the president up by five percentage points in the Buckeye State - 49 to 44 percent.