On poverty, future party leaders Kirsten Gillibrand and Paul Ryan offer few new ideas


Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has called for funding universal pre-K, making good child care more available and affordable, increasing the minimum wage and passing her bill on unpaid family leave. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
Melinda Henneberger
Reporter January 13

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) faced off Monday — sort of, since their talks were hours apart — on how to help Americans become more upwardly mobile. Both are potential presidential aspirants, and they were chosen to address this suddenly hot topic, according to the hosts at the Brookings Institution, because they are “still young and people to watch.”

“She’s been called the next Hillary Clinton,’’ said Isabel Sawhill, who introduced Gillibrand. And “if you want a Republican to talk about ideas and not back down, Ryan’s your man,’’ said Ron Haskins, Sawhill’s co-director of the Center on Children and Families and the Budgeting for National Priorities Project at the think tank. “He presents pretty well, don’t you think?”

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

Oh, they both do. But that these two are considered the future of their respective parties made their presentations all the more dispiriting, since neither made a single point that their parties have not been making for decades.

At least Ryan was on point.

Gillibrand’s speech was both off the rack and off the subject. Best known for her drive to overhaul the way the military handles sexual assault complaints, the senator laid out a proposal nearly identical to the ‘When women succeed, America succeeds’ agenda that Democratic women in Congress launched this summer.

Gillibrand’s solution to making sure the poor have at least a shot at moving into the middle class is this: Pay women more equitably, fund universal pre-K, make good child care more available and affordable, increase the minimum wage — about 17 million minimum-wage workers are female, she noted — and pass her bill on unpaid family leave.

She repeatedly referred to herself as passionate in her convictions and promised to best even President Lyndon Johnson, who declared a war on poverty half a century ago last week: “When women lead this fight,’’ she said, “we will end poverty in America.”

Gillibrand’s is certainly a more equitable vision than the American workplace that exists today, and removing obstacles to the full participation of women in the economy has kind of a Republican ring to it. But it’s hard to see how her proposals create more and better-paying jobs, or shrink wide gaps in income and education.

“I agree with that,’’ said Sawhill, who studies social mobility. “Paul Ryan understands the issue,” she added, approvingly. “He’s really a policy wonk and has constructed a philosophy consistent with the goal of helping people move up the ladder.”

Yet his presentation boiled down to the (arguable) argument that the war on poverty has failed, that government aid should be even more linked to work requirements, and that we should be offering our struggling neighbors ourselves, instead of looking to the government to do it.

“His speech lacked any specifics,’’ Sawhill said. “It was philosophical, and Gillibrand’s was full of specifics but lacked an overarching theme.”

“In short,’’ said Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012, “federal assistance should not be a way station but an on-ramp.” Requiring work, however, won’t create jobs for those looking for employment. And though he hailed the kind of welfare reform that moved many people off assistance in the ’90s, the economy was far healthier — and some who lost benefits did not move into jobs even then.

The event, held on Horatio Alger’s 182nd birthday, began with Gillibrand and ended with Ryan, but in between, experts discussed the topic in private meetings — and disagreed on whether it is getting harder for someone born into poverty to become wealthy in this country.

What’s far clearer, though, is that income inequality is growing. Ryan didn’t mention education, and Gillibrand talked only about early-childhood education. Neither talked about training.

Both were earnest and likable, but he was fluent on the policies he referenced. The time he’s put in recently talking about this issue with poor people seems to have paid off, and he promised that the larger agenda he’s working on will draw on those conversations.

Asked her top priority for making those being held up by the safety net more self-sufficient, Gillibrand answered that we should “recognize workplace realities” of an economy in which 40 percent of primary wage-earners are women. “Simply paying women fairly is a huge economic engine.”

Which, again, circles back to the Democratic view that paying and treating workers better improves the economy, because they then put that extra income back into the economy. Republicans, meanwhile, answer that businesses can’t afford to do that, and if they did, they would be forced to lay off employees.

On Monday, Ryan said that “concern for the poor does not demand commitment to the status quo” and that new ideas from the right are changing the debate.

“You can already hear the howls of protest,” he said.

The real shame, though, is that there aren’t more new ideas to kick around.

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