Paul Ryan during a town-hall event over the weekend struck back at repeated charges about his “villainization of the poor” by asserting his lengthy and strong record of combating poverty.
The congressman, who has been under fire over recent comments about poverty and culture, took a question from a resident at a Milton, Wisc., event.
Echoing Timothy Egan’s recent New York Times op-ed that linked Ryan to a 19th-century English civil servant’s comments about the Irish during the Great Famine, the man suggested that Ryan agreed with Sir Charles Trevelyan and would not be willing to aid a child in poverty.
“What will you do to assure me you will not do similar things?” the questioner asked.
An astonished Ryan responded, “You actually think I believe that? Really? You actually believe that? Wow. That’s amazing. That’s really something.”
As the man defended his claim, Ryan resolutely rejected the “baseless charge” as counterproductive to addressing the issues surrounding poverty, to which he’s devoted an increasing amount of his time. “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,” he said.
Ryan highlighted his yearlong investigation into the government’s current approach to poverty. Noting that President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty marked its 50th anniversary in January, Ryan described how the modern welfare state has failed in its duty to poor Americans.
“We should ask ourselves, ‘Is what we are doing working?’” Ryan said, “and we should say, ‘No, it’s not.’”
Ryan’s analysis found that programs were being evaluated more on input than on outcomes. Instead of focusing on the results, or lack thereof, of such efforts, they were being measured by how much money was being spent.
“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,” he explained, to a flurry of applause from the audience.
“We have actually displaced charity,” Ryan continued. “We have actually isolated people in poverty from the rest of society.”
Ryan also blamed programs such as the Affordable Care Act, which mandates that employers provide health insurance to employees working more than 30 hours per week, for making it difficult for those in poverty to get jobs and work more hours.
“The point I’m trying to make is we have to drop this idea that government is the only needed thing here,” Ryan concluded. “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.”
For audio of Ryan’s entire exchange, click here.
As an aside: ”Villainization” is not a word. The town-hall troll may have meant “vilification.”
— Andrew Johnson is an editorial associate at National Review Online.