WASHINGTON—Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., revealed his new proposal for poverty reform Thursday: Let local charities help the poor first, with government providing resources and backup.
Ryan announced his “Expanding Opportunity in America” proposal in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute. While the 73-page document doesn’t put forward any legislation yet, Ryan means it to serve as a basis for future laws and discussion.
“This really isn’t a Republican or Democrat issue,” Ryan said. “We need to build a society where hard work is rewarded.”
Ryan’s most touted reform—and potentially the most controversial—is the “opportunity grant.” Instead of getting normal federal welfare funds, states could volunteer to participate in a system that consolidates around 11 welfare programs, including childcare aid and food stamps. Poor people would meet one-on-one with a caseworker who would help them build a plan for the future and make them sign a contract with certain goals. Then, caseworkers could tailor federal benefits to each person.
In turn, states would have to ensure the poor have at least two ways of getting assistance: federal programs and local charities. If the states don’t meet certain standards in helping the poor, the government can remove them from the program.
Ryan said the program would ultimately allow states flexibility to tailor welfare to their communities and create a system that monitors results—people becoming self-sufficient—rather than the amount of money spent. In addition, it would encourage private, local groups to step up and help the poor.
“We are reconceiving the federal government’s role here,” Ryan said. “In my view, the federal government is the rearguard. … It’s the people who are on the ground that are the vanguard.”
Ryan also mentioned prison reform and education reform in his sweeping proposal, advocating for nonviolent prisoners to fulfill sentences through private counseling groups and for colleges to develop innovative and cheaper programs.
But poverty is Ryan’s main focus. Each month for the past several months, Ryan has traveled across the United States to visit local charities with Bob Woodson, the founder and president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, a nonprofit that partners with poor neighborhoods and faith-based nonprofits.
Woodson, who also spoke Thursday, was impressed Ryan went on the trips privately, just so he could learn how to best address poverty. In San Antonio, for instance, Ryan prayed with heroin addicts and spoke with a pastor who ran an addiction program.
“He’s been really moved by this,” Woodson told me. “Not many people in Washington take the time he does.”
Woodson appreciates how Ryan’s program encourages local involvement, especially since Woodson believes that only internal change—like faith in Jesus or Judeo-Christian morality—can really help the poor: “You have to change a person’s heart.”
After the meeting, some audience members asked if Ryan’s plan would work in practice: The program assumes charities will step up to the plate when they may or may not even exist.
But Ron Haskins, a Brookings Institute fellow who spoke in support of Ryan’s plan, thinks America’s currently messy welfare system demands change: “This is the most attractive way to do it.”
Ryan’s greatest challenge, Haskins told me, is uniting Republicans. While the proposal could garner bi-partisan support, Ryan must enlist the support of often-divided Republicans to pass the bill through the House.
Ryan, who has repeatedly said the government should be involved in poverty reform, encouraged Congress to provide for the poor but ultimately allow communities to lift up their neighbors.
“Let’s stop focusing on treating the symptoms of poverty,” he said. “The people who are fighting poverty eye-to-eye, soul-to-soul, and person-to-person—they’re the ones who are making the difference.”