With an Eye on 2016, Ryan Unveils Plan to Fight Poverty

Paul Ryan
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Representative Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, unveiled his long-awaited anti-poverty agenda Thursday morning, proposing to dramatically reshape federal safety net programs for the poor.

The plan would combine funding from many different programs, including food stamps and housing assistance, and use that money as block grants -- or as he prefers to them, “Opportunity Grants” -- to the states.

“We are reconceiving the federal government’s role here,” Ryan said in remarks introducing his plan at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, a conservative think tank at the forefront of bringing a so-called reform agenda to the Republican Party.

The principle behind his plan, Ryan says, is increased flexibility in exchange for more accountability. States that wanted to supplant federal programs with an Opportunity Grant would submit a plan to the federal government for how they would use the money -- and Ryan stressed that the money would come with strings attached, including work requirements and independent auditors to make sure the state plans were working.

Ryan’s plan is not a bill but a “discussion draft,” intended to begin a conversation about how to alleviate poverty. Ryan and many conservatives believe that state and local programs will more effectively meet the unique needs of individuals and communities than federally-run programs.

As an example of how his plan would work, Ryan gave the hypothetical example of a woman named “Andrea,” a young single mother without a job, a home or a car but dreams of becoming a teacher. Under Ryan’s plan, Andrea would have her own caseworker who could offer her assistance tailored to her needs like finding a job, transportation, and ultimately going to school to get her teaching credentials, Ryan said.

But Democrats awaited Ryan’s proposal Thursday with skepticism given his history of trying to cut aid to the poor. While Ryan’s draft plan stresses that “this is not a budget-cutting exercise—this is a reform proposal,” Democrats anticipated Ryan’s plan by pointing to his famous (or infamous) budget proposals, which make deep cuts to federal poverty programs, including Medicaid through block granting the program. His most recent budget cut food stamps by $137 billion over 10 years. They also note Ryan’s opposition to raising the minimum wage or extending unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed.

“Ryan’s anti-poverty rhetoric isn’t fooling anyone,” said a Democratic National Party email blasted out before Ryan’s remarks Thursday morning. “He can’t claim to be fighting for the poor, while at the same time fighting for policies that would directly harm them.”

There are opportunities for bipartisan cooperation in Ryan’s plan. Most notably, Ryan calls for expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for childless adults, which would lower the tax burden on the working poor. President Obama proposed the same thing in March, the only difference between Obama and Ryan being how to pay for it, a disagreement that could derail what should be a bipartisan issue.

Obama would close tax loopholes that benefit the rich, while Ryan said he would “eliminate a number of ineffective programs, such as the Social Service Block Grant, the Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program, the Economic Development Administration, and the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program.” Ryan also suggests cuts in energy subsidies. The discussion draft doesn’t name specific subsidies --  “The Department of Energy, for example, spends billions annually to subsidize corporations’ efforts to commercialize favored energy technologies and sources picked by the Congress and the bureaucracy” -- but liberals would oppose eliminating support for wind and solar energy production.

Another area of general agreement is on criminal justice and sentencing reform -- a policy area where some Democrats and Republicans have recently seen eye-to-eye. “There’s no reason to lock anyone up longer than necessary,” Ryan said.

In the coming weeks and months, however, these areas for agreement are likely to be forgotten as liberals and conservatives bicker over the big picture. The heart of Ryan’s plan, block grants to the states combined with work requirements, is a long-held policy goal on the right and one viewed with serious skepticism on the left.

Ryan’s plan draws upon the 1996 welfare reforms, which replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a block grant with flexibility for states, work requirements and caps on assistance for the poor. In conservative lore, this was a major success. But liberals see welfare reform as a cautionary tale, which hurt single mothers and failed poor Americans during economic downturns.

During Ryan’s speech Thursday, the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities tweeted a graph showing the 1996 law’s limited effect on employment.

Ryan’s proposal has been a long time coming. For the past year, Ryan visited anti-poverty initiatives around the country with his mentor, Bob Woodson, a conservative anti-poverty community organizer who wants to help down and out Americans help themselves. As chairman of the House Budget committee, Ryan hosted a series of hearings on reforming the safety net.

Known for his austere budgets, Ryan’s pivot to the issue of poverty is in keeping with a larger GOP push to repair its image. After the 2012 election, which featured Ryan as the vice presidential candidate, the Republican Party’s autopsy report on the election singled out the perception that “the GOP does not care about people” as “a major deficiency that must be addressed.”

Ryan is considered a top presidential contender in 2016. Those close to Ryan have made a point recently of detailing how he wanted to focus on poverty during the 2012 election but was reined in by Mitt Romney’s campaign.

Ryan’s plan could also garner criticism from ultraconservatives. After Ryan’s remarks at AEI, a panel of conservative experts largely praised the plan. But a panelist from the Heritage Foundation, Stuart Butler, expressed skepticism with elements of the plan, including expanding the EITC.

“Enough with the politics. Let’s talk solutions,” Ryan said Thursday. “This really isn’t a Republican or a Democratic issue. It’s an American issue.”