Black Caucus to challenge Ryan on poverty

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) will meet next week with members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) to discuss strategies for alleviating poverty.

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The closed-door meeting has been in the works since last month, when Ryan stirred controversy by saying poverty is caused largely by a "tailspin of culture," particularly in inner cities, where "generations of men [are] not even thinking about working or learning to value the culture of work."

CBC leaders denounced the remarks and later invited Ryan to meet the group to discuss ways Congress could help the poor become more prosperous. Ryan was quick to accept, and the much-anticipated gathering is slated for Wednesday of next week, just a few hours after Ryan is scheduled to hold a Budget Committee hearing on the same topic.

Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), a member of both the CBC and the Budget Committee, said Tuesday that CBC members will "challenge [Ryan's] assumptions" about poverty's roots while pushing specific policy proposals aimed at helping alleviate the problem.

"His take on talking about poverty is to say we spend billions or trillions of dollars on poverty programs ... and poverty won," Moore said during a press call. "And we see that, essentially, as ... [him] playing with statistics or numbers, because in fact these poverty programs have helped raise people into the middle class by giving them job experience. And it has literally been a lifeline to millions of people, and not just people of color.

"We are happy that Rep. Ryan wants to engage this conversation and we're not going to let him get away with sort of a slight of hand on this," Moore said. "We know how to crunch numbers as well."

Next week's discussions, both public and private, come as the two parties are sparring over the government's role in helping minorities and other disproportionately low-income populations escape poverty.

Much of the focus of those talks will likely revolve around Ryan's 2015 budget proposal, which aims to eliminate deficit spending over a decade with a series of tax reforms and $5.1 trillion in federal cuts, the bulk of which would affect programs designed to help low-income people.

House Democrats have been hammering Ryan's plan as an attack on the working class, and on Tuesday they launched their latest broadside, saying the proposal would clobber minorities and other vulnerable populations who can least afford the hit.

Ryan's plan, for instance, would cut $145 billion in Pell grants, a program that helps 60 percent of black and more than 50 percent of Hispanic undergraduate college students, the Democrats charge. 

Steep reductions to food stamps, Medicaid and other safety net programs would also harm minorities disproportionately, they argue.

Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) said Tuesday that the Ryan budget is just the latest case of Republicans giving "lip service" to battling poverty without doing anything about it.

"The overtures ... really are kind-of empty signals that aren't really backed up with anything substantive," Sanchez said. "So while Republicans say they want to help make college affordable or they want to help, you know, reduce poverty in this country, when you go to them and try to work something out with them, typically what they want to do is declare every single program ... [targeting] working class, middle class, working poor families, they want to go and they want to cut it.

"Sadly, I find that most of their desires to want to help a vast majority of Americans in this country is just lip service," she added.

Moore said she plans to press Ryan on programs aimed at creating job opportunities for those in the poorest corners of the country. One such initiative, dubbed the 10-20-30 program, would direct at least 10 percent of certain anti-poverty spending to communities where at least 20 percent of the population has lived below the poverty line for at least the last 30 years.

"This is not a partisan thing, it's not a racial thing, it's not an urban or a rural thing," Moore said. "We see this as an opportunity."

Still, given the hyperpartisanship that practically defines Congress this election year, Moore said she's concerned that Ryan, even if he agreed with the CBC, would have a tough time moving legislation through the House.

"That's the conundrum we find ourselves in," she said. "Paul Ryan wants to talk about poverty, but ... I think he is hamstrung by a caucus that is not willing to have these conversations. 

"He's sort of walking a tightrope."