Rep. Paul Ryan thinks the federal government should stop its habit of treating poverty as a series of isolated problems and start listening to the "boots on the ground," local community leaders fighting for different results.
Today, Ryan, R-Wisconsin, released an anti-poverty proposal he coined an "Opportunity Grant" that concentrates 11 safety-net programs - food stamps, housing assistance, child care and cash welfare, among them - into a single stream of funding offered to states that agree to the program.
The proposal is budget neutral, meaning states would receive the exact same amount of money for safety-net expenditures as they currently do under law, he told those gathered at the American Enterprise Institute. He believes the grant addresses poverty in a more holistic, "collaborative" way.
"This isn't your garden variety block grant," he said.
The speech and a short panel that followed were pitched as a call for economic solidarity.
Arthur Brooks, AEI's president, told the crowd, "Patriots fight for America, no matter how they vote."
Here are five ways Ryan believes he can help end poverty:
1. Establish a new spirit of togetherness.
Ryan framed the problem in a language normally unfamiliar to Republicans, incorporating individual enterprise into a group-oriented, populist vocabulary: "The secret of our country's success is collaboration: people working together, learning together, building together. … The fact is, each person's needs fit into a coherent whole: a career. And each person fits into a coherent whole: a community." He told the audience after his speech, "We have a lot of silos that are isolating the poor from our communities," adding that most people expect their tax money and the federal government to take care of the problem. Ryan's support for local service providers is supposed to encourage the poor to develop short-, medium-, and long-term plans with help from the providers, using contracts, timelines and rewards for meeting different "benchmarks of success."
2. Turn anti-poverty measures into a grassroots, bottom-up operation.
Ryan believes his proposal is "reconceiving the federal government's role" in anti-poverty programs: "No longer will it try to supplant our communities but to support them … the people on the ground. They're the vanguard. They fight poverty on the front lines. They have to lead this effort and Washington should follow their lead." He called for an end to the red tape he thinks is holding back low-income families, suggesting that if federal agencies propose any kind of regulation that would negatively affect the poor, they have to see it approved by Congress. A more localized anti-poverty strategy can present a more "personalized, customized form of aid."
3. Don't just counsel low-income people and families. Counsel convicts, too.
Instead of punishing non-violent, low-risk criminals with harsh sentences, offer them counseling, job training, and the opportunity to trade prison time for pre-release custody, "as long as they complete a program with a proven track record." Ryan pointed to the recent Public Safety Enhancement Act, which looks to get ex-cons at risk of re-incarceration out of a life of crime. Those who aren't crowding the criminal justice system are more likely to contribute to the work force in ways that help combat poverty, he argued.
4. Start accrediting more colleges.
Ryan cited legislation supported by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., which seeks fewer constraints on accrediting universities, vocational schools, and even curricula and individual courses, as a major influence on the Opportunity Grant plan. Ryan's plan looks to let more schools in on federal oversight normally reserved for four-year institutions. On a panel after his speech, he praised the vocational schools near him in Wisconsin, indicating their stature as in keeping with many four-year institutions that don't offer formal job-training programs.
5. Use the Earned Income Tax Credit to the advantage of childless workers.
The Earned Income Tax Credit has become a hot issue for reform-minded conservatives looking to appeal to a wider swath of working-class Americans. Ryan suggested doubling the maximum credit for childless workers to $1,005 and lowering the minimum eligibility age from 25 to 21. "This is one of the few programs that have shown results," he noted. Ryan believes President Obama has wrongly proposed raising taxes to pay for the credit, and Ryan wants to pay for it by "eliminating ineffective programs and corporate welfare, like subsidies to energy companies." For Ryan, the tax credit is a way to ensure that "it always pays to work."
On a panel after the speech, Ryan was praised by Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution, who co-directs the Brookings Center on Children and Families, and who was a longtime congressional adviser on welfare reform. Haskins believes that almost everything in Ryan's proposal could garner bipartisan agreement. "This is a sweeping proposal. It's worthy of a think tank," he said. "It's a spectacular document. I have not seen anything like this from an individual member in Congress for many years."