Politicians and commentators on the left have been publicly flogging Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) for daring to talk about poverty in America’s inner cities. The charges have been so vicious and scurrilous (accusing him of using racial “dog-whistles” and language “deliberately crafted to appeal to white racists”) that their only purpose can be to send a message to Ryan and any other Republican who would dare follow his lead: Keep your hands off our issue. Poverty belongs to us. Stay away or we will brand you a racist.
That raises interesting questions: Why are Democrats so threatened by a Republican congressman trying to find new ways to help the poor and vulnerable? Wouldn’t it be better if there were two parties competing to find the best ways to alleviate poverty?
Clearly it would be better for the poor. But it would not be better for the Democratic Party.
Ryan’s attackers worry that if Republicans follow his lead, it will expose the failure of the left’s approach to poverty. For decades, Republicans gave Democrats a near-monopoly in the fight against poverty. And like most monopolies shielded from competition, the Democrat-led war on poverty failed. We have spent trillions of dollars on anti-poverty programs, and today the number of Americans living at or near poverty is higher than it was in 1964.
But while the war on poverty has not reduced poverty, it has created what Robert Woodson of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise calls a “poverty-industrial complex” — armies of bureaucrats invested in the expansion of the welfare state. This Democrat-driven poverty industrial complex defines success by how many people are signed up for government assistance, not how many people it has helped get off government assistance. Now Ryan is declaring this model a failure and calling for a new approach, one that reduces poverty and dependence by unleashing opportunity. Instead of defending their ideas, Democrats are trying to discredit Ryan, tar him as a bigot and drive him out of the debate. That is a telling admission of failure.
Ryan’s attackers are also worried that if Republicans make helping the poor and vulnerable a priority, Democrats can no longer win elections by waging class warfare and painting the GOP as uncaring champions of the wealthy. They want the Republicans to follow the example of Mitt Romney, who declared in 2012, “I’m not concerned about the very poor. . . . We will hear from the Democrat Party [on] the plight of the poor. . . . But my campaign is focused on middle-income Americans.”
A recent Gallup survey shows why this is a disastrous strategy. It turns out that middle-income Americans (and pretty much all Americans) are concerned about the very poor. Of the top 15 national problems Americans say they are most worried about, hunger and homelessness came in at No. 5 — with 76 percent reporting that they worry a great deal or a fair amount about those who do not have enough to eat or a place to sleep. Indeed, more Americans worry about hunger and homelessness than they do about the size and scope of the federal government (68 percent), the availability and affordability of energy (67 percent), the possibility of a future terrorist attack in the U.S. (63 percent) and illegal immigration (57 percent).
Even more interesting, Americans’ concern about hunger and homelessness is nearly universal: Seventy-two percent of Republicans worry a great deal or a fair amount about hunger and homelessness, as do 71 percent of independents and 85 percent of Democrats. So do 70 percent of conservatives, 76 percent of moderates and 84 percent of liberals. So do 75 percent of college graduates, 72 percent of those with some college and 78 percent of those with a high school diploma or less. So do 73 percent of young Americans ages 18-34, 78 percent of middle-aged Americans 35-54 and 79 percent of those who are 55 or older. Indeed, only 6 percent of Americans share Romney’s “I’m not concerned about the very poor” sentiment.
It’s not a winning message — which is exactly why Democrats want the GOP to stick with it.
Ryan understands that if Republicans abandon the poor to the Democrats, they will hurt the poor — because Democrats have all the wrong answers for the problems of poverty. But they will also hurt themselves. Because no one — in the middle class or any class — wants to support a party that does not care for the most vulnerable among us.
That is why the left is attacking Ryan. They see him as a threat — to their political interests and the poverty-industrial complex they have built over the past five decades. Instead of being intimidated by the attacks on Ryan, Republicans should double down, join Ryan and make championing the poor and vulnerable a centerpiece of their agenda. After all, if Ryan has the left this upset by trying to help the poor, he must be onto something.