Paul Ryan offers anti-poverty proposals focused on states

Greg Nash

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Thursday unveiled a sweeping new package of proposals to battle poverty that he says will help low-income people currently bogged down by the federal bureaucracy.

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The centerpiece in Ryan’s new plan is what he calls the Opportunity Grant — a program that would consolidate as many as 11 separate federal initiatives into a single chunk of funding for states.

In a speech at the American Enterprise Institute on Thursday, Ryan said that the setup would aid state governments and local organizations that should be the “front lines” in the war on poverty, instead of the federal bureaucracy.

“Success is measured by how many programs we create, how much money we spend,” Ryan said about the government’s current approach. “Not on outcomes. Not on results. How many people are we getting out of poverty? How many people are getting out of poverty and staying out of poverty?”

The GOP’s 2012 vice presidential nominee went to great pains on Thursday to insist that his new plan wasn’t about politics, even as he remains rumored as a potential 2016 presidential candidate.

Ryan noted that some of the planks in his anti-poverty push are similar to proposals from Democrats, even President Obama. He also noted that his plan doesn’t seek to cut federal spending for programs helping the poor, but would only overhaul how that money is delivered and spent.

The Wisconsin Republican developed his plan after touring local social services programs around the country. “Nobody asked me what party I belonged to,” Ryan said about those trips. “They welcomed anybody who was there to listen and to learn.”

Still, Ryan’s push also comes as a number of high-profile Republicans — including others thought to be considering 2016 bids, like Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) — have worked to remove the hard edges around the GOP’s conservatism on issues like helping the poor and revamping the criminal justice system.

Obama defeated Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP nominee, after making income inequality a central plank of his reelection campaign. Romney was also hurt by his comment that 47 percent of voters see themselves as victims who are dependent on the government and are more likely to support Democrats. The comments were secretly recorded at a private fundraiser.

Even before Ryan’s speech, top Democrats like Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) expressed skepticism that Ryan’s new approach would differ from his string of GOP budgets and insisted party lawmakers would “oppose any plan that uses the sunny language of ‘reform’ as a guise to cut vital safety net programs.”

Ryan said Thursday that his opportunity grant would give low-income people a better chance for long-term stability.

States would get more flexibility, he said. People seeking services would receive more personal attention. And in exchange for the money, the federal government would set four stipulations.

Under Ryan’s plan, states would have to spend the money on anti-poverty initiatives, a neutral third party would have to gauge the success of the more localized programs, people seeking services would have to have choices among programs, and they would have to meet work requirements.

Ryan also sought to distinguish between his new push to help the poor and his GOP budgets, which Democrats have latched on to as they make the case that Republicans are creating obstacles for the middle class and the working poor.

Ryan’s budgets would give block-grant funding to states for Medicaid. But on Thursday, Ryan said his new poverty package “isn’t exactly a block grant.”

His other proposals would expand the earned income tax credit for single workers and make it more available to them, by lowering the eligibility age from 25 to 21.

Obama and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) have floated similar ideas, but Ryan proposes offsetting the credit’s expansion by cutting subsidies for energy and seeking to bar illegal immigrants from using the child tax credit.

Ryan would also revamp the federal government’s role in education, from preschool all the way to college. He would overhaul the criminal justice system by seeking to give judges more leeway in sentencing and trying to reduce the number of ex-convicts who go back to jail, with ideas he said he shares with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), among others.

And Ryan would seek to cut bureaucratic red tape, a common GOP complaint, but one that Ryan and Republicans like outgoing House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) have said can be particularly rough on low-income people trying to start a business.

“All of these are good ideas. They’re just the start,” Ryan said. “This is meant to start a discussion.”