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House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite, File
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

Will Paul Ryan’s poverty plan pitch strike out?

Politics | The GOP budget guru’s poverty-fighting efforts come under fire as he holds a hearing with those on the front lines

America’s poverty rate is the highest in a generation despite the fact that the federal government spends almost $800 billion a year on 92 different programs to fight poverty.

This is an irony Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican from Wisconsin whose has been branded the GOP’s budget guru, has been sharing with fellow lawmakers and the nation’s voters.

Ryan has unveiled a House Republican report on poverty that argues the 15 percent poverty rate is at least partly due to federal programs that not only fail to address the problems but sometimes make them worse. His report counts 15 programs for food aid and 20 tied to education and job training. This disarray creates what the report calls a “poverty trap” that encourages dependency on federal programs.

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Ryan is taking that message to voters across America in an effort to combat perceptions that Republicans are insensitive to the poor. Ryan knows firsthand how that messaging has hurt the GOP—he was the vice presidential running mate for Mitt Romney’s failed White House bid in 2012.

Ryan’s efforts to find working solutions to poverty, coming on the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, returned to Washington on Wednesday with a House Budget Committee hearing during which Ryan proposed something different for lawmakers: He urged them to listen.

For this hearing on the government and the poor—the third in a series he has held as chairman of the House Budget Committee—Ryan asked his colleagues on the committee to learn from people who have spent decades fighting on the poverty front lines.

“They’re helping families rebuild their lives, and in their own way, they’re helping expand opportunity in this country,” Ryan said at the hearing’s opening. “Today, we’re all ears.”

What lawmakers heard from two of the witnesses is that money does not solve poverty. These on-the-ground caregivers urged lawmakers to enforce a standard of accountability for what the government spends on its poverty programs because too often it becomes more about the programs and less about the people they are meant to serve.

Bob Woodson, president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, told lawmakers about how the establishment of violence-free zones near public schools in Milwaukee has served nearly 900 at-risk youths since 1980. Having some of these students go to college instead of jail has saved Milwaukee County taxpayers an estimated $64 million, Woodson argued. Police there say car thefts in the surrounding communities have dropped 68 percent.

Woodson also talked about a church partnership for foster care in Somerset, N.J., that last year placed it’s 1,000th child into a home. Founded in 1996, Harvest of Hope Family Services is a foster care and adoption program that has trained more than 435 families to become licensed foster families at greatly reduced expenditures than what the government spends for similar services. 

From Woodson’s perspective, the fight against poverty gives too much money to academics to design remedies for the poor that are then “parachuted” into communities with the expectation that residents must participate.

“They ask not which problems are solvable but which ones are fundable,” Woodson told lawmakers. “So we have in fact created a commodity out of poor people where those who are providers are not responsible for producing outcomes. They measure success by how much they spend.”

Woodson said turning the poor into a commodity creates a perverse incentive where value is placed on keeping the poor tied to the government system. When they need more help, the program gets reimbursed at a higher rate. Woodson argued that success should be measured by how many people are helped not how many are served. He attacked the assumption that if you want to spend more money then you must care for the poor, while if you want to spend less dollars, it must mean you don’t care for the poor.

Woodson said both political parties have become what he calls public policy medical examiners who busy themselves by conducting endless pathology studies on what went wrong. Instead of writing failure studies about why a certain community has 70 percent of its population living in poverty, Woodson suggested examining how the other 30 percent are managing to live in that community with some success.

Bishop Shirley Holloway, the founder of the House of Help City of Hope, has served the poor in the Washington, D.C., area for nearly 20 years. Her group has reached nearly 40,000 people.

“I find that love is greater than any dollar,” Holloway told lawmakers. “Whatever solution that a person is given, if it doesn’t have love, it cannot heal.”

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