Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) held a press call this morning to talk about his anti-poverty program, which he rolled out yesterday. He outlined the basic components, including the Opportunity Grant, which aims not to save money but to let states customize programs and work with the private and charitable sectors to lift people out of poverty. Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, education reform (Ryan talks about “tuition inflation” and creating the same debt burden that triggered the housing market meltdown), judicial reform (reduce the 50 percent recidivism rate and not lock up and throw away the key for low-risk, nonviolent drug users) and regulatory reform rounded out the list.
There are a few big-picture takeaways. Some relate to the program and others to Ryan personally.
First, Ryan’s entire focus is moving from “outputs” to results. He said that his program “can occur at any funding level.” But the aim is to make the safety net work and worry about what results are obtained rather than how much we spend. This has the substantive benefit of trying to create better policies without penny-pinching on relatively small-dollar domestic programs. And as a political matter, it allows Democrats who are obsessed with funding levels to lower their resistance to new ideas. The left gets its collective dander up when the issue is fiscally driven, but as we saw from the reaction of many liberal think-tankers yesterday, there is a lot of room for cooperation on the substantive ideas.
Second, a driving rationale for the reform is that the federal government obstructs and displaces local programs that work. Instead of setting up “silos” of distinct programs with little regard to individuals’ needs, Ryan wants the federal government to move to a supportive, funding role and away from a “dominating, suffocating role.” He analogizes this to welfare reform, calling the anti-poverty program Welfare Reform 2.0.
Third, Ryan is intent on linking poverty programs to work and work-related activities (school, training, job-hunting) for the able-bodied. He said, “Right now federal benefits create high marginal tax rates for people to get off benefits.” This “disincentive to work,” he pointed out, is one problem with Obamacare.
Fourth, this is not classic federalism in the sense of pushing money off to the states and wiping the federal government’s hands of programs. Ryan proposes creating a data clearinghouse for studies, analysis and recommendations that can be widely shared. That’s a federal project. He recommends finding and empowering a third party neutral to measure effectiveness. Setting that up and determining what to measure and what to do with the results (e.g. cut funds, require states to go back into traditional programs if theirs don’t work) is another federal responsibility. Ryan’s own health-care reform is a federal program (Medicaid driven by the states, tax credits for the non-elderly) but without mandates, regulated levels of insurance and the Independent Payment Advisory Board.
Fifth, Ryan is serious that this is a discussion draft. He plans to solicit ideas, make refinements and only then introduce legislation. “That will be next session,” he says. He says he has received “great” feedback, remarking that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) called to praise Ryan’s effort.
As for Ryan personally, he is never so buoyant and energetic as when talking policy. His sincerity and real interest in the material at hand is evident. You don’t spend 18 months as he did studying poverty programs and traveling around the country to learn about them unless you are serious about the topic.
In short, this isn’t a setup for a presidential campaign or a midterm election stunt. To the contrary, one gets the sense that Ryan will spend next year working on this gigantic undertaking, not working the rope lines in Iowa and New Hampshire. He is returning to his role as the party’s content-provider. He seems content to let others vie for president, although he has never ruled out a run.
Ryan’s effort is a critical part of the effort to revive the conservative movement and, yes, change its image as the party of old, rich, white men. If Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates embrace this venture or parts of it, all the better. The campaign will then be more serious and the message already directed toward middle- and lower-class voters whom the GOP will need to recapture. Ryan is demonstrating once again that he is the most influential and essential person in the GOP.