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Paul Ryan’s anti-poverty plan so bipartisan it doesn’t sound like he’s running in 2016

Rep. Paul Ryan, right, visits Outcry in the Barrio heroin clinic in San Antonio January 2014. Pastor Jubal García is seen at left. (NA/Outcry in the Barrio)

Would the anti-poverty plan outlined by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Thursday really put the compassion back in the party that sprinted away from George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism? Maybe, even if Ryan has until now been better known for slashing social programs.

After spending time listening to people living in poverty over the past year, his tone and rhetoric have certainly changed. Not so long ago, Ryan spoke out against turning our safety net into a hammock and called the pope’s economic views uninformed. But in Thursday’s speech at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, he made a point of saying he wanted to hear “constructive criticism — ha! — constructive criticism’’ from the left as well as the right.

“I want to talk about how we can repair the safety net,” he said, even positing that we can’t have a healthy economy unless that net is strong. And if you’re seated, look at this: “What the federal government can do better,’’ he said, “is provide resources” that can then be tailored on the state and local level to each person’s individual needs. He also talked up prison reform that would cut sentences and improve vocational training for non-violent offenders to “let people earn a second chance.”

Of course, Ryan’s role is changing, too; his term chairing the House Budget Committee is expiring, and he’s likely to become chair of the Ways and Means Committee, which oversees tax policy and entitlement programs.

But he’s also “gotten less partisan and more knowledgeable,’’ in the view of John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University. “You can’t spend time with poor people without appreciating that they want to work.’’

Robert L. Woodson ​Jr. has led Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on a tour of community-based anti-poverty programs. Ryan released his plan to combat poverty this week. (Theresa Poulson/The Washington Post)

Ryan wants to beef up the earned-income tax credit for childless workers — a plan many conservatives will not love. And he’d like to create something he calls “opportunity grants” — a pilot initiative that would transfer funding for 11 federal programs back to those states that sign up. Instead of applying to a bunch of different programs, those in need would work with a single case manager on a “customized, personalized” and streamlined plan to move into a job. Work requirements would count time spent in training or looking for employment. Most surprisingly, it would not cut current funding.

He still doesn’t give current programs enough credit. And for someone who has worked in Washington all his adult life, Ryan does seem almost touchingly attached to the idea that local government is less corrupt than its federal counterpart.

But in a panel discussion after his remarks, Ryan corrected those who referred to his opportunity grants as block grants with a new name. Ronald Reagan used block grants to first divert funds, then discontinue them and shutter social programs.

“This isn’t really exactly a block grant,’’ Ryan said, “where you cut a check to the state and call it a day.” Funds would have to be spent on the poor — “no funny business,’’ he said — and would not be trimmed. “It would be budget neutral, and not a penny less.”

He did not, of course, correct those colleagues who called his proposal “spectacular,” “sweeping,” “audacious.” Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution called it a “bipartisan proposal very few Republicans would have the courage” to offer, and that some may not “have the sense to support.”

He’s not the only Republican who’s talking about poverty; on Friday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) will do it at the National Urban League. On Wednesday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) spoke on the subject at the Catholic University of America. Stephen F. Schneck, director of the school’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, who introduced Rubio, said that Republicans who are addressing poverty deserve a lot of credit.

“At a time when my own Democratic Party increasingly seems to think that it’s no longer politic to focus on income inequality and the poor,” he said, “it’s a profile in courage for Republicans like Ryan and Senator Rubio” to do so.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Thursday released his anti-poverty strategy at the American Enterprise Institute. (American Enterprise Institute)

Rubio’s talk, though, was far more partisan than Ryan’s; he accused President Obama of trying to divide Americans. And though he has also argued for returning funding for anti-poverty programs to the states, and for increasing the child tax credit, Rubio pointed to a return to a more traditional understanding of family as the surest path out of poverty.

His presentation was also far less energetic than Ryan’s, though that wasn’t entirely his fault: It was so hot in the packed room, even after organizers opened all the side doors, that the senator kept having to wipe his brow and pat his face with his handkerchief. Eventually, he made a couple of jokes about it.

Someday I’ll hear Rubio give a speech that does not start with a reference to his humble roots, but Tuesday was not that day. Yet despite that modest start, he said, “I consider myself to be a child of privilege,’’ because being “raised by two parents who were married to each other . . . led me to live my life in a sequence that has a proven track record of success.”

Specifically, this sequence: Get an education, then a job, then marry and have children. Stick to that order and you’ll be better off by virtually every measure, he said, though of course it’s also true that more Americans who are already better off can and do get an education first.

Though some of Rubio’s speech could have been given anytime since the 1960s, he was recommitting to traditional marriage just as some fellow Republicans are moving in the opposite direction. He said he doesn’t care if he’s out of step with public opinion:

“I promise you that even before this speech is over I will be attacked as a hater, or a bigot, or someone who is anti-gay. This intolerance in the name of tolerance is hypocrisy.”

He argued vaguely that we need a “21st-century system” of dealing with immigration, but aren’t likely to get one soon, and said that “in the 21st century, a good education is not just an option, but a necessity.” Earlier this week, he suggested he’s a man of this moment, unlike potential Democratic competitor Hillary Rodham Clinton: “I just think she’s a 20th-century candidate,” he told NPR. In remarks that came off as a shot at her age — 66 to his 43 — he said, “she does not offer an agenda for moving America forward in the 21st century.”

For many, Rubio’s Wednesday pitch situated him squarely in the 19th century. But there’s no question his message was more in line with Republican primary voters than Ryan’s.

You could see Ryan’s evolution on poverty as an attempt to broaden his base ahead of a presidential run. But it’s a shift so at odds with the priorities of his party that when he said he’d pay for increases to the tax credit by cutting “corporate welfare,” it on the contrary sounded to me like he isn’t running in 2016.

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


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