Paul Ryan Offers a Way Forward for GOP on Poverty

The Republican’s “discussion draft” could help the party navigate a tough issue in the midterm elections.

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 05: House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) questions Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf during a hearing in the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill February 5, 2014 in Washington, DC. Committee members questioned Elmendorf about the latest projections by the CBO, which says the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, will affect supply and demand for labor, leading to a net reduction of about 2.5 million full-time jobs by 2024. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
July 24, 2014, 6:47 a.m.

Rep. Paul Ry­an on Thursday in­tro­duced a “dis­cus­sion draft” of a policy pro­pos­al to drastic­ally re­form the na­tion’s eco­nom­ic safety net.

Like the im­mig­ra­tion pro­posalthat House Re­pub­lic­ans re­leased earli­er this year, Ry­an’s plan is merely a dis­cus­sion draft, not a bill. It is highly un­likely that any of his pro­pos­als will make their way to the House floor this year. But the plan provides a co­her­ent vis­ion for the Re­pub­lic­an Party, a brand that was deeply dam­aged by Mitt Rom­ney’s per­ceived dis­missal of lower-in­come Amer­ic­ans in the last elec­tion. Head­ing in­to the Novem­ber midterm elec­tions, the policy pro­pos­al could provide talk­ing points for the GOP and, mov­ing for­ward, help Ry­an to gain dis­tance from the 2012 tick­et.

Ry­an’s draft, which he presen­ted at the Amer­ic­an En­ter­prise In­sti­tute, is the res­ult of more than a year’s re­search. To pre­pare his pro­pos­al, the Wis­con­sin Re­pub­lic­an cris­scrossed the coun­try and met with com­munity-level or­gan­izers who are com­bat­ing poverty, in his terms, “on the front lines.” What he drew from those ex­per­i­ences, Ry­an said, was that in­di­vidu­als on the ground can do a much bet­ter job of fight­ing poverty on a one-on-one basis than the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment can.

Al­though the coun­try cur­rently spends $800 bil­lion each year on 92 fed­er­al pro­grams tar­geted at lower-in­come Amer­ic­ans, Ry­an noted, poverty is at its highest level “in a gen­er­a­tion.” “There is a lot of good that’s go­ing on in this coun­try,” he said. “It is time to bring in re­in­force­ments.”

To do so, Ry­an is in­tro­du­cing a block-grant-type sys­tem to re­place the fed­er­al safety net: States would re­ceive the ex­act amount of fed­er­al fund­ing for lower-in­come cit­izens that they take in now, but each state would have full flex­ib­il­ity over how to use it. Ry­an bristled at the term “block grant,” however, term­ing his idea “Op­por­tun­ity Grants.” Block grants, he said, are too open to ab­use. Un­der his new vis­ion, every cent of the Op­por­tun­ity Grants would have to go spe­cific­ally to lower-in­come in­di­vidu­als—not roads, for ex­ample. “No funny busi­ness,” he said.

States would vo­lun­teer for the tri­al pro­gram by sub­mit­ting a plan to the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, and a few would be se­lec­ted to en­gage in the ex­per­i­ment, cre­at­ing a sort of “Race for the Op­por­tun­ity Grant.” A neut­ral third party would then eval­u­ate how the states are do­ing.

For in­di­vidu­als, Ry­an’s plan would al­low those liv­ing in states with the grants to choose one of­fice and one in­di­vidu­al case­work­er to handle their needs, rather than mul­tiple fed­er­al agen­cies. The grants would have to be used to of­fer both private and pub­lic or­gan­iz­a­tions for in­di­vidu­als to work with, which will then provide each with a per­son­al­ized plan to help get them out of poverty, based on their own skills and goals. Those who meet bench­marks un­der their in­di­vidu­al plans will be re­war­ded, and those who do not will face con­sequences.

Pulling a key quote from con­ser­vat­ive talk­ing points on the is­sue, Ry­an’s plan also re­quires that “every per­son who can work, should work,” a bul­let point that is likely to draw the ire of Demo­crats on Cap­it­ol Hill.

But the plan also in­cludes some bi­par­tis­an meas­ures. In ad­di­tion to the block-grant pro­gram, Ry­an called for an in­crease in the Earned In­come Tax Cred­it for child­less Amer­ic­ans, nearly doub­ling the max­im­um pay­out to $1,000 and lower­ing the age of eli­gib­il­ity to 21—the same plan that Pres­id­ent Obama pro­posed earli­er this year—al­though the same sec­tion of his dis­cus­sion draft dis­misses Demo­crats’ elec­tion-year push to raise the min­im­um wage.

In a con­fer­ence call with re­port­ers Thursday, Demo­crats praised Ry­an’s in­terest in ex­pand­ing the Earned In­come Tax Cred­it, but in­dic­ated that the parties would have dif­fi­culty in agree­ing on off­sets to pay for the ex­pan­ded pro­gram. Ad­di­tion­ally, they ar­gued that Ry­an’s pro­pos­al is disin­genu­ous, as House Re­pub­lic­ans were slated to vote later Thursday to al­ter the child tax cred­it in such a way that would “put 12 mil­lion more Amer­ic­ans in­to poverty or deep­er in­to poverty, in­clud­ing 6 mil­lion chil­dren,” House Budget Com­mit­tee rank­ing mem­ber Chris Van Hol­len said.

The House bill would ex­tend the pro­gram to wealth­i­er fam­il­ies while fail­ing to make per­man­ent a pro­vi­sion aimed at the work­ing poor. But in real­ity, the pro­vi­sion that in­volves poor fam­il­ies does not ex­pire un­til 2017, giv­ing Con­gress three years to deal with the is­sue.

Demo­crats also lauded Ry­an’s call for crim­in­al-justice re­form in his draft, wel­com­ing him to an is­sue that, they said, Demo­crats have been cham­pi­on­ing for years. Ry­an’s plan ar­gues that judges should be giv­en great­er dis­cre­tion in sen­ten­cing “non­vi­ol­ent low-risk of­fend­ers” and em­phas­izes coun­sel­ing and edu­ca­tion to lower the na­tion’s high re­cidiv­ism rates, a plan that Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., has been push­ing for years.

Des­pite these areas of agree­ment, Demo­crats on the call largely dis­missed Ry­an’s plan and his speech on poverty, ar­guing that it con­tra­dicts cuts made in his own budget plans over the years—a fa­vor­ite elec­tion-year tar­get for Demo­crats. The Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee, the op­pos­i­tion re­search firm Amer­ic­an Bridge, and oth­er Demo­crat-aligned groups made sim­il­ar ar­gu­ments in a flurry of press re­leases Thursday morn­ing as well.

“While Mr. Ry­an seems to be learn­ing to talk the talk, he hasn’t seemed to walk the walk when it comes to poverty,” Rep. Jim McGov­ern, D-Mass., said on the call Thursday af­ter­noon. “How do you ser­i­ously say that you care about poverty when you’ve spent the last few years cut­ting holes in the safety net?”

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