Ryan’s Opening Bid

by Lori Sanders
The Republican congressman wants to reform welfare.

Representative Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) unveiled his draft “opportunity agenda” in a speech this morning at the American Enterprise Institute, offering a plan broad and bold enough to give both sides much to like, hate, and quibble over.

The many individual proposals contained in the agenda are held together by the theme of solving complex problems through pairing local knowledge with the immense power of the federal purse. This marks a welcome return to the central conservative tenets of community and federalism, which Ryan applies to six different areas of public life.

Federal and state governments currently spend more than $900 billion annually on more than 80 means-tested assistance programs. But as even many on the left will concede, we have little to show for these efforts in terms of transformative change. As we look for ways to turn around this dismal performance, conservatives are right to insist on a modest role for the federal government and for more programs to be tied to work requirements and other means of shared responsibility.

But Ryan grasps something deeper: that the plague of institutional breakdown and intergenerational poverty means some communities still require additional help to get effective programs off the ground. After years of formulaic welfare spending, the unfortunate victims of well-intentioned policies might have the resources to live above the poverty line, but too few have the means to move themselves up the ladder.

Ryan’s plan acknowledges a necessary role for the federal government, but confines it to what the federal government does best, which is provide resources. Even in the proposal that most clearly would be directed by the federal government – expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit for childless workers – Ryan justifies the idea on grounds that it will better help those in poverty, particularly unmarried men, return to work and participate in other local initiatives designed to put their lives back on track.

The most ambitious part of the plan would see billions in bureaucratic, uncoordinated spending replaced by “Opportunity Grants” to the states. The grants would fund local, personalized case-management providers who take a holistic approach to bettering the lives of the poor. These changes would allow service providers to assess individuals where they are, coordinate the services they need, and track progress to ensure real results.

The public policy literature is thick with studies and experiments extolling the virtues of individualized care and rigorous accountability, but large-scale implementation of such programs has been elusive. In part, this is because it requires huge upfront investment, but also because of the many ways it would gore the sacred cows of current social services spending. It’s worth noting that pulling off this shift would be difficult, as it requires participating states to set up entirely new systems. Ryan’s proposal is unfortunately thin on details as to how this transition would take place.

The Ryan plan is not perfect. Conservatives will charge that it really does not reduce spending, and that’s true. But the harsh reality is that years of family and community breakdown inevitably require spending some money on targeted reforms if we ever hope to break the cycle. The end goal is to strengthen families and communities so that, in the next generation, far fewer Americans need this type of assistance. Given economic and social trends, we’re unlikely to get there without radical change.

For its part, the Left should, but probably won’t, acknowledge that the Ryan plan leaves the social safety net very much intact, while making it more flexible to local and individual needs. States would be free to place priority wherever it’s most needed, whether child care, nutrition, job training, or what have you. The services would be the same. It is how they are delivered that could be altered radically.

Ryan’s understanding of poverty in America has certainly advanced from when he controversially attributed poverty to “a tailspin of culture in our inner cities.” To be sure, the reforms called for in this plan will only be successful if they do have a lasting effect on culture. But Ryan now is offering concrete ideas on the structural drivers of poverty and how to address them.

Conservatives would need to accept that, perhaps, it is not quite time for federal spending on social services to shrink; and liberals would have to accept that the formulaic, often one-size-fits-all programs Ryan is attempting to overhaul have failed to help Americans living in poverty. Could a shift toward results-oriented programs delivered by those closest and most able to solve the problem bring both sides together?

Hopefully, it can. After all, as Ryan states in the agenda’s opening paragraphs:

 “A key tenet of the American dream is that where you start off shouldn’t determine where you end up. If you work hard and play by the rules, you should get ahead. But the fact is, far too many people are stuck on the lower rungs.”

— Lori Sanders is outreach director and Senior Fellow at the R Street Institute.

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