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.

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?"