Paul Ryan’s new front in the War on Poverty

08/09/2014 7:00 PM

08/08/2014 5:31 PM

Americans are increasingly unhappy about the economy, and they blame Washington politicians on both sides of the aisle for their anxiety. This is the conclusion drawn from a WSJ/NBC News poll that mirrors a Gallup poll released two days earlier. In case you had your doubts, the results are in: Americans have had it with business as usual in the nation’s capital.

The polls show that more than 75 percent of Americans believe their children will not have better opportunities or lives than they, the parents, have, and nearly that same percentage believes the country is going in the wrong direction. It is a significant increase from a similar survey conducted in June. Perhaps more alarming is that more than half, 60 percent, believe the country is in decline.

How can this be when Department of Labor reports reflect a consistent pace in hiring, and the economy is relatively stable?

The public’s pessimism isn’t hard to understand, considering many people earn less than they did before the start of the recession, More than a third still owe more for their homes than they’re worth. Additionally, recent employment tendencies show that many new hires are often part-time workers or subcontractors who aren’t eligible for employee benefits.

The fact is that while hiring figures may indicate an increase in employment, growth in family income remains alarmingly low with diminishing opportunities to save for the future. These families make up the growing demographic of the working poor who, unable to save for the future, will be economically dependent on their families or state and federal government if nothing changes. The ground-floor feeling is that this economy is not doing what needs to be done to sustain a middle class.

So it is refreshing that to read some of the report of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., Expanding Opportunity in America, which picks up President Lyndon Johnson’s theme of the War on Poverty. Ryan’s approach takes this to the next level. Recognizing that poverty has been well-addressed with direct assistance, he argues that it didn’t go far enough to help individuals become independent of government aid.

“True victory over poverty involves making people self-sufficient who are currently not,” Ryan says, while adding that it is a worthwhile endeavor even if it means a larger investment than cash-based assistance. Washington spends an extraordinary amount, $800 billion, to fund 92 programs to help families. It’s almost impossible to measure their effectiveness. Too many are designed to assist the poor but not eliminate poverty.

Few policymakers have been willing to address this problem. This makes the Ryan plan an excellent read for Americans who are really serious about helping the poor get out of poverty.

One of the hallmarks of the plan is to transfer federal programs to the states and have them administer and experiment with programs that could prove more successful than what exists today. The plan recognizes that one size does not fit all ; what is best for Florida may not be as effective for New York, for example. Innovation, an area where Americans excel, rarely is seen at the federal level. You see it more often at the state level, where best practices are better developed and implemented.

State participation would be voluntary. They would have to compete for these “opportunity grants.” The administration has implemented a similar approach in education with Race to the Top, to Florida’s benefit.

Most interesting, Ryan includes criminal-justice reform as a means to also reduce poverty. Some prison sentences for nonviolent offenses are too long — 51 percent of the federal prison population is serving terms for drug-related offenses. Rehabilitation, in many cases, would result in better citizens when incarceration just wastes taxpayers’ money. This isn’t a new idea, but it’s worth the debate.

Partisan cynics will find it hard to separate the message from the messenger. Ryan’s fiscal conservatism is well known. Nonetheless, he has a distinct ability to work with liberal members across the aisle and tackle problems outside of the usual parameters. Before joining the Romney ticket, Ryan teamed up with liberal Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., another out-of-the-box thinker, to introduce a proposal for reforming Medicare. It made business-as-usual Washington nervous. Ryan is doing it again.

When a far-reaching proposal makes both Democrats and Republicans equally uncomfortable, you know you’re probably on to something good.

Join the Discussion

Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service