Paul Ryan is not backing down. Just days after the House Budget Committee, which he chairs, released a report critical of the nation's anti-poverty programs, Ryan is holding a series of town hall meetings in his Southern Wisconsin district. The Janesville Republican held a meeting last Friday in Milton, where the following exchange took place.
Questioner: Congressman, 46 million Americans are in poverty. One out of four children are in poverty. And we rank 34th behind Latvia and before Romania in industrialized countries in terms of these poverty rates. The nemesis of your ancestors in Ireland justified not saving the Irish from the famine because dependence on charity would be not "an agreeable mode of life." First of all, do you agree that childhood poverty is an indicator of a society’s health?
Paul Ryan: Correct.
Questioner: And second, what would you say to me as a child born in poverty to assure me that you would not use Trevelyan’s justifications for not saving the Irish?
Paul Ryan: Okay, I didn’t catch that last part.
Questioner: Trevelyan justified not saving the Irish in the famine because dependence on charity is not an agreeable way of life.
Paul Ryan: And you’re asking me to say whether I agree with that or not?
Questioner: It’s just a hypothetical that if I’m born in childhood poverty. . .
Paul Ryan: Yeah, I got that.
Questioner: What will you do to assure me you will not do similar things?
Paul Ryan: You actually think I believe that? Really? You actually believe that? Wow. That’s amazing. That’s really something.
Audience member: Well, you did say that children are being fed but they [have] empty souls so, I mean.
Paul Ryan: Here’s the point I keep trying to make. It’s really kind of amazing. You know, we’re really not going to have a good, adult debate on these issues if we keep impugning people’s motives, and if we keep calling people names, and if we keep throwing baseless charges at each other.
Paul Ryan: It’s my turn now. I’m getting at your question right now. I’m actually very proud of the work that I have been doing on poverty in the past year and earlier in my life. And what I sought to do a year ago was, knowing that the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty was coming up and knowing that those results are just like you said—the highest poverty rate in a generation, 46 million people in poverty, child poverty as you said, deep poverty is the highest on record—we should ask ourselves, "Is what we are doing working?" And we should say: "No, it’s not."
Paul Ryan: So what I set out to do a year ago is to . . . find an accounting of all these things we do in the federal government to fight poverty and get a handle on what’s working and what’s not working. No real accounting has occurred by the way, so we did it ourselves. So we, in the House Budget Committee, decided to go out and find out what . . . does the federal government do? How much are we spending? And what are the outcomes? What literature is out there that analyzed these programs—like audits, Inspector General reports, and GAO reports? and then get a good accounting on what it is we’re doing to measure the status quo. Because you can’t reform these programs if you don’t even know what they’re doing. And so my argument is, if we take a look at the status quo, there are a couple of takeaways:
Number one, we have been measuring our poverty-fighting efforts based on inputs—based on how much money we spend on programs, not based on outcomes: How many people are we getting out of poverty?
Number two, we need to have a different approach that goes at severing the root cause of poverty. Go address the root causes of poverty, and don’t just treat the symptoms of poverty and try to make poverty more sustainable. Because the goal here, like you just said, is to break the cycle of poverty. And so we need to rethink our approach. And as we rethink our approach, there are two things that are in dire need of reform, and there has been so much written about this.
One, I think we have inadvertently reinforced this idea in America that all you have to do, if you’re not in poverty, is pay your taxes, and government will take care of this problem. We have actually displaced charity. We have actually isolated people in poverty from the rest of society. This is what Bowling Alone, Bob Putnam’s book, is basically all about. We have reinforced this notion that this is government’s responsibility, and you don’t have to do anything about it. Those of us in our Catholic faith say using solidarity and subsidiarity, it’s each and every person’s obligation to get involved in their community to make a difference, to fight poverty, eye to eye, soul to soul, person to person. This is the point I’ve been making all year, and that’s why I’m kind of offended at your inference.
Now, this is what we have to look at, which is, every person’s place in poverty is not necessarily the same. I met with a young woman in her mid-twenties in Racine the other day who was abandoned by her parents when she was 15 years old. She went homeless. She had a lot of problems, and she needed more than just a check, more than just money. She needed a lot of help, and she needed someone to help her. So, for instance, Catholic Charities, which is really effective at this, attached someone to her to help her put together a life plan for herself, not for a day or for a week, but for years—to help her get the counseling she needed, to help her get housing, and to help her put a plan together for her life that she is now in the midst of implementing and executing. She’s going to school, extremely excited and happy about life, engaged to be married, and getting out of poverty. This is how you fight poverty—a person at a time. You customize it. You don’t say, "It’s not my responsibility; government has a program for it." You get involved yourself, and you do it independently.
I was at Pulaski High School twice this last year. A high school in downtown Milwaukee that two years [ago] had 14 gangs in this high school. Fourteen gangs creating violence, creating havoc, and dropping graduation rates like you’d never believe. A new idea, called the Violence Free Zones, organically and created locally, taking people who are ex-gang members, people who went through these high schools, went through poverty, went through violence, and learned it was the wrong way to go, and have now become mentors to kids in this school and who are helping each and every one of them get on the right path in life. They have the credibility to say, "Don’t make the mistake I made. Here’s a better path: Go to school. Take it seriously. And I realize you have all these problems at home, so let me help you through them." These are examples right here in Wisconsin of people successfully fighting poverty, person to person, through charities.
The point I’m trying to make is we have to drop this idea that government is the only needed thing here. Government has a huge and important role to play in fighting poverty, but it’s not the only role. Civil society, charities, people have got to step up to make a difference here so that we can get people in poverty on an on-ramp, a bridge, to a better life, and so we can break the cycle so that kids are not growing up in multi-generational poverty, which has been plaguing this country.
The last point I’ll make is this: that government has inadvertently created all these barriers to work. I was just going through these CBO documents that say just because of Obamacare, the equivalent of 2.5 million less jobs will be done by the end of the decade because of the disincentives to work because of this health-care program. Employers are cutting the work week from 40 hours to 29 hours because the work week is now 30 hours full time, not 40 hours. So there’s one law where the government said cut people down from 40 hours to 29 hours. That doesn’t help you get out of poverty. This law is saying, "If you go to work, you’ll lose more."
People are getting a marginal tax rate of about 80 percent just to try and dig out of poverty, and what they lose by going to work, so we’re putting all these roadblocks in front of people making it harder to transition into lives of work. And that is something that we need to deal with in government while we assess the government’s approach to the War on Poverty. Work is the bridge to a better life. So that’s job training, that’s smoothing out these benefits, and making sure that it always pays to work.
And so my argument is, we need to look at this problem and bring new ideas and stop calling each other names, stop impugning people’s motives, stop impugning people’s character, and if we can all acknowledge that what we’re doing right now isn’t working, then why don’t we open our minds to some new approaches and some new ideas, and see if we can fix this problem together in this country.