Ryan on Poverty: 'A Reform Debate, Not a Funding Debate'

Ryan on Poverty: 'A Reform Debate, Not a Funding Debate'

When House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan (R-WI) released his new plan for fighting poverty last week, he encountered some unusual reactions. Conservatives, focused on the border crisis, wondered why Ryan hadn’t waited for a more opportune moment. Many liberals, used to demonizing Ryan’s entitlement reforms, clung to their caricatures–though former Clinton administration labor secretary Robert Reich, said that he was “impressed.”

“I must confess, that makes me think twice,” Ryan joked, speaking with Breitbart News on Wednesday. Reich praised Ryan’s plan, “Expanding Opportunity in America,” because it did not make cuts to existing programs. 

“This is something that is very new and different from the Republican Party,” Reich said on ABC News’ This Week last Sunday. 

Ryan disagrees: he says that his plan applies conservative principles to a “liberal” issue.

“Just as we did with education reform, coming up with school choice and charter schools,” Ryan told Breitbart News, “we have to think about how government can be improved. I wanted to leave aside the budget debates, which are a distraction from the fundamental problem of reform.” 

Simply put, his plan–still a first draft–calls for changing the way money is spent, and by whom, rather than reducing overall budgets for poverty programs.

For example, Ryan’s plan would create a “pilot project” through an “Opportunity Grant,” which would direct federal anti-poverty funding to “states and community groups,” which would “test different ways of fighting poverty.” By applying the conservative principle of federalism–which has worked in the past, with school vouchers and welfare-to-work in Ryan’s home state–the hope is to improve both efficiency and outcomes.

Some of Ryan’s proposals are standard conservative fare: rolling back regulations to boost small businesses and job creation; reforming education and reducing federal involvement in the student loan market; and removing disincentives to work, such as Obamacare, which encourages part-time rather than full-time employment.

Yet there are a few unorthodox proposals, such as prison reform and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit.

“For decades, we’ve measured the war on poverty by inputs, not outcomes,” Ryan adds. 

Indeed, he cites the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, celebrated earlier this year by President Barack Obama as a great success, as his inspiration to articulate new policy ideas that he has been working on for 18 months. (He would not say whether the 2012 election spurred him to tackle issues of concern to urban and low-income voters.)

Ryan disputes the notion that there is some link–or, perhaps, a contradiction–between his anti-poverty plan and his stance on immigration. (He favors immigration reform but opposes the Senate’s “comprehensive” bill.) 

“My position is that we have to secure the border, and choose who comes and goes. We should permit the kinds of immigrants our economy needs, who aren’t taking a job away from an American,” Ryan told Breitbart News.

Ryan’s new project clearly shows the inspiration of the late Jack Kemp, Ryan’s early mentor, who championed free-market reforms in America’s inner cities. “Jack planted the seed with me,” Ryan says. “Conservatives have a lot to offer in fighting poverty.”