The GOP’s rich opportunity to help poor people

December 11, 2012

Redskins linebacker London Fletcher and Rep. Paul Ryan at the recent Kemp Foundation dinner where Ryan spoke about poverty. (Courtesy of the Rick Reinhard/Kemp Foundation)

In their current reduced circumstances, Republicans know they can’t continue to come off as the party of, by and for the millionaires. The up and comers in the GOP — Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal and Paul Ryan — have all said as much, and Ryan in particular has been making headlines and collecting praise for, glory alleluia, mentioning the have-nots in this country.

At a recent dinner honoring a truly compassionate conservative, Jack Kemp, who brought home ownership to the projects as Poppy Bush’s HUD secretary, Mitt Romney’s vice presidential pick put the challenge facing today’s Republicans this way: “Our party excels at representing the aspirations of our nation’s risk-takers. We celebrate that part of the American Dream that involves finding your passion and making a living from it. But there is another part of the American creed: When our neighbors are struggling, we look out for one another.”

Amen to that. But happy as I am that Ryan’s putting his lips together and pronouncing the word “poverty,” the substance of what he went on to say needs work.


Paul Ryan and his wife Janna washing already clean pots at a photo op stop at an Ohio soup kitchen during the ’12 campaign. (AP)

After last month’s rejection at the polls, is the party of car elevators and firing people ready to come to Jesus — not on What Would Jesus Do, but on What Jesus Actually Did? Maybe.

They’re “trying to revive a Jack Kemp understanding of how markets can help rebuild opportunity,” says Michael Cromartie, of the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, “and that’s a conversation that hasn’t happened for a while.” Though “compassionate conservatism” was key to George W. Bush’s appeal to moderates, it was shelved after 9/11, and blown off as “big-government conservatism” on the right.

With one in six Americans living in poverty, there’s not only a Grand Canyon of need out there, but a vacuum of leadership, too; President Obama hasn’t made the issue a priority, either, and some of his allies have long been unhappy about that. They left a recent meeting with him over those concerns feeling better, but Republicans still have plenty of room to distinguish themselves. And though Ryan’s remarks on the subject have so far been thin and in some ways mistaken, that doesn’t mean they can’t be a starting point.


Ayn Rand, the Russian-born American novelist, in Manhattan in 1962. (AP)

To those who doubt the budget-slasher’s sincerity, I say: Does Ryan’s motivation matter? Desire to do the right thing not only can exist alongside political ambition, but leads to the same place more often than we might think. If he is serious, however, first on his do-list must be explaining how his expressions of care for the poor mesh with the Dickensian House budget named for him. And with his past enthusiasm for Ayn Rand, who saw any hand up as akin to heroin.

“Ayn Rand more than anyone else did a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism,” he said in a campaign video in 2009, “and this to me is what matters most.” If Ryan really has been disenchanted in the three years since citing Rand as his personal North Star, we need to hear about it.


Bob Dole’s 1988 running mate, Jack Kemp (Stephan Savoia/AP)

The other night, Ryan praised his mentor, Kemp — and tacitly upbraided Mitt “47 percent” Romney — saying,  “Jack just hated the idea that any part of America could be written off … And nothing could be more foreign to Jack’s way of thinking than to accept poverty as a permanent way of life.”

But during the campaign, Ryan also said more than once that when he himself had been flipping burgers as a teen, he’d never felt he’d be trapped in that station in life. Well of course he didn’t; his father was a lawyer, and he comes from a big extended family of well-off college graduates. 


Tabitha Rouzzo (The Washington Post)

To even begin to understand what we’re up against in fighting poverty, contrast that with the options open to Tabitha Rouzzo, the teenager profiled in the Post last Sunday, whose attempts to climb up and out have been ferocious, sustained, and unrewarded.

Or consider the possibilities in front of an unemployed female Army vet I spoke to Tuesday, who served for 8 years and is looking for janitorial work and living on $73 a month in food stamps. (Thank goodness Ryan’s recent speech did not repeat his October reference to the “hammock” of public assistance; $73 a month is more like a bed of nails.)

The veteran, a 36-year-old D.C. native I met through Final Salute, a group of female vets helping other female vets who are homeless, didn’t want her name used because she’s embarrassed to be receiving aid.

To help Americans in that situation, Ryan says we’ve really only tried “bloated, top-down anti-poverty programs” that “wrecked families and tore communities apart. This was so obvious to everyone that when we reformed welfare in the 1990s, the law was passed by a Republican Congress and signed by a Democratic president. And what happened? Welfare enrollment dropped dramatically.” Yes, when you kick people off the rolls, enrollment does tend to drop.

“Child-poverty rates fell over 20 percent in four years,” he went on. “Welfare reform worked because it encouraged the best in people.” Pssht; Bill Clinton didn’t just passively sign on the line, but ran on ending “welfare as we know it.” And poverty rates didn’t fall because people were kicked off welfare, but because the economy was exploding in all directions. 

By far the best part of Ryan’s speech was its emphasis on our obligations to one another. “The real debate is how best we can meet them,” he said, and “whether they are better met by private groups or by government – by voluntary action or by government action. The truth is, there has to be a balance.”

There certainly does. As John Carr, a fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics who for many years worked for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, says, there are four major players in anti-poverty efforts — family, community, the market, and government — and in Washington, “everyone has one of those they love and one they hate.”

Yet Tabitha, the teen in the recent Post story, has been let down by all four — and it will take all four to lift Americans in her predicament out of hardship.

Carr saw that for himself growing up: “My mother ran a pro-life crisis pregnancy center,” — the kind of community effort saluted by Republicans — yet “food stamps and Medicaid were lifelines, not the source of all evil.”

Former Republican Congressman J.C. Watts says that when his fellow conservatives talk about poor people, they too often sound like cooks who are awfully new to the kitchen: “You can have the recipe,” he told me, but would have more confidence in “someone who’s maybe made the cake.”

Kemp, the Buffalo Bills quarterback turned New York congressman, learned about poverty by going into low-income neighborhoods and talking to people who disagreed with him. Ryan might consider following that example straight back to that soup kitchen where he washed already clean dishes during the campaign. (And this time, try to show up when some people are around.)

On the right in particular, there is political opportunity in bringing some truly new thinking to this stubborn old problem. Surprise us, Mr. Ryan, and seize it.

Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and anchors the paper’s She the People blog. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.

 

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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