Representative Paul Ryan yesterday released a 73-page plan aimed at reforming anti-poverty programs and increasing social mobility.
The deficit-neutral plan would consolidate nearly a dozen federal anti-poverty programs into a single funding stream for states (called the “Opportunity Grant”); expand the Earned Income Tax Credit to childless workers; streamline federal grant, loan, and work-study programs and give more educational programs access to accreditation (thereby increasing more access to technical careers); revise the mandatory-minimum sentencing guidelines while expanding enrollment in rehabilitative programing; and roll back “regressive regulations” that are particularly injurious to low-income people while easing licensing requirements to enter the workforce. Thoughtful analyses of Ryan’s plan can be found here, here, and here.
There are several features of Ryan’s “Expanding Opportunity in America” plan that are worth highlighting. The first is that his core reform requires and rewards work for those states that would opt in. It would do so by expanding one the best features of the 1996 welfare reform bill, in this case implementing work requirements for people receiving non-cash welfare assistance. States would have flexibility in terms of how they spend federal dollars, so long as it’s spent on programs that require work. This is a way for government to promote not simply work over idleness, but the dignity and self-sufficiency that often result from work.
Representative Ryan is also showing Republicans the importance of structural reforms, which are more important even than only cutting spending. (This applied to his Medicare reform proposals as well.) Mr. Ryan is demonstrating through his proposal that he wants to strengthen the social safety net, not undo it. And by supporting EITC, an effective federal program that promotes work and reduces poverty, Ryan is showing an empirical-minded rather than ideological approach to governing. He’s interested in championing what works.
I’m also encouraged by the fact that Ryan proposes reducing corporate welfare (such as subsidies for agriculture and energy). I’ve argued before that Republicans should be visible and persistent critics of corporate welfare–the vast network of subsidies and tax breaks extended by Democratic and Republican administrations alike to wealthy and well-connected corporations–since such benefits undermine free markets and undercut the public’s confidence in American capitalism. “Ending corporate welfare as we know it” is a pretty good mantra for Republicans.
In the wider context of things, Ryan has shown that he is–along with Senators Marco Rubio, Mike Lee, and others (including governors and former governors like Jeb Bush)–helping the GOP to be both conservative and constructive. They are able to present not just a governing vision but also a governing agenda–one that is designed to meet the challenges of this moment, this era, this century. This contrasts rather well, I think, with modern liberalism, which is increasingly reactionary and exhausted.
One other thing: Paul Ryan’s effort to combat poverty and increase social mobility is important and impressive because great parties and political movements will care about those in the shadows of society. “Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you,” Jeremiah writes, “and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its prosperity you shall prosper.”
Politics involves many things, including rather mundane and even distasteful ones. But it also involves, at its best and at its highest, seeking the welfare of the city. That is something worthy of our attention and energies, as Paul Ryan and other prominent figures in the conservative movement understand.