After months of deliberation over how to create House Republican consensus on an election-year policy agenda, Speaker Paul D. Ryan on Tuesday unveiled a proposal for fighting poverty that identifies a long list of policy ills but stops short of prescribing specific legislative fixes.
The anti-poverty plan, formally announced at a nonprofit social services and housing provider in the hardscrabble Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, includes a list of problems with the current social welfare system and recommendations for how to fix them — largely by shifting money and programs from federal control to groups like Anacostia’s House of Help City of Hope.
“These are the people who are fighting poverty on the front lines … and they are winning,” Ryan said, standing next to the group’s founder, Shirley Holloway, and seven fellow House Republicans.
“If there is anyone we should listen to, it is them — the people here in our communities who are actually successful in fighting and winning and beating back poverty,” he continued. “What they’re doing is, they’re not isolating the poor, they are elevating the poor. If we want people to contribute to our society, then we need to reward those contributions.”
The 35-page document is the first piece of a larger agenda effort Ryan launched earlier this year, aimed at allowing rank-and-file members to craft a substantive blueprint during a presidential campaign where much of the focus has been on party infighting and concerns about bombastic presidential front-runner, Donald Trump.
The diversion on Tuesday was brief. Reporters immediately questioned Ryan on Trump’s recent attacks on the federal judge handling a civil case against him, accusing the judge of bias due to his Mexican heritage.
The policy principles laid out in the anti-poverty plan are plenty familiar to denizens of conservative think tanks. Broadly speaking, the proposals seek to expand work requirements for those receiving federal benefits, to give states and local jurisdictions a greater role in administering those benefits, to better measure the results of federal programs for the poor, and to crack down on waste, fraud and abuse.
The lack of specific policy prescriptions could open Ryan to criticism from the left, but it reduces the risk that any of the proposals could be rejected by Trump who has said very little about specific ways to help the poor.
Trump said Sunday that he shares Ryan’s goal of reducing poverty and he plans to work with the speaker to reach a compromise on policy ideas.
“He wants to take people out of poverty,” Trump said in an interview with CBS News. “So do I. And we’re going to come up with a plan.”
Trump said that people are poor because they don’t have jobs and promised to bring back jobs lost when companies shifted jobs overseas.
But the businessman has not embraced many other specific policies for combating poverty, though he has often criticized programs like welfare and food stamps. Trump was also one of two GOP presidential candidates to skip a poverty-focused forum in January, which Ryan moderated in one of his first notable acts as speaker.
Ryan plans to roll out the rest of the project, entitled “A Better Way Forward: Our Vision for a Confident America,” in a series of events between now and the July 4 break.
Ryan will be joined Thursday by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) at the Council on Foreign Relations for the release of the House GOP’s national security proposals. The other four planks to be rolled out in the coming weeks will focus on health care, taxes, regulatory reform and reasserting Congress’s constitutional authority.
“This is the beginning of a conversation,” the document released Tuesday concludes. “House Republicans will continue to collaborate and solicit ideas on how best to improve outcomes for lower-income Americans, and we will continue to craft policies to ensure that no matter who you are or where you come from, if you work hard and give it your all, you will succeed.”
The members of the poverty group identified a number of areas in the welfare system to be improved or discarded, including poor coordination between agencies, a long list of programs that are not well tailored to the specific needs of individual beneficiaries, insufficient access to education and training, and a lack of programs to promote saving.
The plan does not include some of Ryan’s past signature anti-poverty proposals, such as expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit to provide assistance to single, childless workers, or a new social services block-grant program for states and local governments. Instead, the document focuses on painting a broad picture of a GOP-led social welfare system and the types of policies that could be created in the event a Republican is elected president.
Many of the specific policy prescriptions aimed at addressing the problems identified in the paper were left out because members couldn’t agree on details such as how to prevent waste and fraud, according to aides.
The proposal also stops short of embracing specific welfare reform legislation that House Republicans have introduced or passed in recent years, including drug testing requirements for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, often called welfare.
Democrats dismissed the proposals before they were even released. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee put out a memo Monday that declared the proposal “not worth the white paper it’s printed on” and used the opportunity to criticize Ryan for endorsing Trump.
“When Speaker Ryan claimed the House of Representatives would serve as a guidepost for the principles of the Republican Party, the reality quickly set in that Trump reigns supreme and Ryan’s agenda was lost in the wind,” wrote DCCC spokeswoman Meredith Kelly.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), a veteran advocate for federal aid to the poor, accused Ryan on using misleading statistics in order to “eviscerate social safety net programs that lift millions of people out of poverty.”
“The only ‘better way’ that Speaker Ryan’s recommendations will offer is a better way to fall into poverty,” she said in a statement.
Ryan’s decision to debut the anti-poverty agenda first reflects a personal interest in applying conservative policy to the plight of America’s poor dating back to his days as a twenty-something policy aide to former Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) in the 1990s.
One of the first major political events Ryan associated himself with after becoming speaker wasn’t a campaign rally or a high-dollar fundraiser, but the January presidential candidate forum in South Carolina, hosted by the Jack Kemp Foundation and focused on economic opportunity issues.
“We’ve treated poverty like they’re potholes that need to be filled up and then we move on,” he told the crowd there, adding that America needs to replace a “safety net that is designed to catch people falling into poverty” with one “designed to help get people out of poverty.”
Ryan’s visit to Anacostia Tuesday was not his first. Holloway, in an interview, said Ryan has visited her organization at least three previous times since 2012, when they were introduced to each other by Robert Woodson — a longtime conservative advocate for welfare and urban-policy reform.
Jimmy Kemp, the son of the late congressman and president of the foundation that bears his name, said it was no mistake Ryan chose to launch his agenda effort with the anti-poverty program. The proposals, he said –“focused on how to incentivize work and opportunity and disincentivize people from becoming comfortable” on federal assistance — are not especially radical.
“I don’t think they’re huge ideas,” he said. “He’s at the head of the ship, and ship aren’t usually the most nimble things. But the great news is that there is going to be action. There is an agenda, and this is priority where Paul has put his stake in the ground.”
Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, who accompanied Ryan to Anacostia, said the Republican commitment to helping America’s poor went well beyond Ryan’s personal interest.
“We’re here because we care,” he said. “We’re serious about combating poverty in America, and we’re serious about helping million of Americans earn their success, and that’s what we’re talking about.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program as food stamps.