WASHINGTON -- Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Thursday unveiled a new, highly anticipated proposal to fight poverty.
"I want to talk about how we can expand opportunity in America," the former vice presidential candidate said at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "I don’t have all the answers; nobody does. But by working together, we can build a healthy economy and help working families get ahead.”
The big idea in Ryan's plan would be to consolidate most of the federal government's anti-poverty programs, such as food stamps and housing vouchers, into one program that states could oversee and coordinate more closely. Ryan's "Opportunity Grant" would be voluntary -- states that want to try it could submit their own plan, so long as it includes "work requirements" for the able-bodied poor.
Though he has a well-earned reputation as tough on spending, Ryan said Thursday that the Opportunity Grant is only about reform, not reducing budget deficits.
"It would be budget neutral," Ryan said. "The state would get the same amount of money as under current law, not a penny less."
As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan authored several budget documents over the years that would have drastically reduced federal spending on programs for poor people, especially food stamps. (None of his "Path to Prosperity" budgets became law.) Those proposals were designed to reflect the will of House Republicans generally, while Thursday's plan represents Ryan's thinking as an individual.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the highest-ranking Democrat on the budget committee, pooh-poohed Ryan's new ideas on Thursday, calling it the same old strategy Republicans have used in the past to cut the safety net.
"The core idea of the Ryan proposal is not a new idea at all: it’s nothing more than a block grant gussied up with some bells and whistles," Van Hollen said. "If you look at the block grant proposal in the context of the Ryan-Republican budget, it would dramatically slash the resources available to help struggling families."
Thursday's event is the culmination of a dozen visits to poor neighborhoods where religious and local nonprofits ran programs that Ryan has suggested could be models for national policy. Ryan made most of his field trips with little fanfare, in sharp contrast to his photo op in a soup kitchen during the 2012 vice presidential campaign.
Antipoverty activist Bob Woodson is the man who brought Ryan to nonprofits across the country.
"What I tried to show Paul is that the real solutions to poverty," Woodson said at AEI on Thursday, "are the people who are residents in the community experiencing the problem."
During his yearlong poverty quest, Ryan repeatedly stressed the inadequacy of federal programs, along with the need for better-off members of society to give their time to the poor. "You need to get involved yourself, whether through a good mentor program, or some religious charity, whatever it is to make a difference," Ryan said on a radio program in March, for instance. His statements echoed welfare reformers of the 1990s and charity reformers of the late 1890s, who believed "indiscriminate almsgiving" only emboldened beggars.
Key to Ryan's new plan is the notion that the federal bureaucracy is too vast and distant to be effective against local poverty problems. Instead of relatively indiscriminate food stamps, to which anyone who meets federal criteria is entitled, Ryan would delegate more discretion to states and local authorities -- and the state would keep a closer eye on recipients.
"Under the Opportunity Grant, you could go to one office and work with one person," Ryan explained in a USAToday op-ed. "That person would give you financial assistance, but could also act as a personal resource. Maybe you're struggling with addiction and you need counseling. Maybe you come from a broken family and you need a network of support. The point is, you would work together to get from where you are to where you want to go."
In a series of blog posts this week anticipating Thursday's event, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank, pre-emptively rebutted some of Ryan's favorite talking points. One of the most important is Ryan's claim that the War on Poverty has been a failure -- while the official poverty rate may not have seen a huge net decline in 50 years, more comprehensive measurements that include tax credits and food stamps do show such a decline.
Ryan's other big claim is that federal safety net programs like food stamps and housing subsidies "trap" people in poverty because the working poor lose eligibility for assistance as their incomes rise, meaning efforts to get ahead essentially face a stifling tax. The Center on Budget said Tuesday Ryan overstates the effect, though the center does not deny such an effect exists.
Other elements of Ryan's plan include criminal sentencing reform, expanding tax credits for childless workers, and cutting regulations that are barriers to starting businesses.
In addition to launching a new poverty agenda, Ryan is about to launch a book tour for a forthcoming release titled "The Way Forward." Ryan is on every political reporter's list of people who might run for president.
This story has been updated to include comments from Chris Van Hollen and Bob Woodson.