Paul Ryan has earned a reputation for making Americans confront fiscal deficits many would prefer to ignore. Yesterday in Cleveland, the chairman of the House Budget Committee was at it again, forcing liberals and conservatives alike to look at their respective antipoverty deficits.
Ryan exposed the moral and fiscal bankruptcy of the liberal welfare state, driving dependency on more than 80 federal means-tested programs to the tune of $1 trillion annually. The Wisconsin Republican also owned up to conservatives’ leadership deficit when it comes to fighting poverty — and made a big down payment toward erasing it.
It’s not that conservatives don’t have answers to the question of poverty. To the contrary, we’ve had striking successes in the 1996 welfare reform and school choice for low-income students, for starters. But we’ve lacked the coherent framing, leadership, and initiative to convey the conservative antipoverty vision in a way that would capture Americans’ imagination and dislodge the default welfare-state paradigm.
That’s one reason Ryan’s speech yesterday was so significant. It was clear about the competing visions, concrete in policy proposals, and compelling in its moral vision. What’s emerging is the fruit of Jack Kemp’s mentoring, and Ryan’s own digging into the federal budget and wrestling with Catholic social thought.
The welfare state has not done justice to the poor, and conservatives should be loud in demanding better. Policymakers must make the safety net really work for those truly in need. That means providing temporary material support in a way that puts recipients on a path toward independence by encouraging work. Workfare made the 1996 reform of one program — Temporary Assistance to Needy Families — effective. TANF work requirements helped reduce rolls by half and drove black child poverty to an historic low.
But American poverty is much more complex than material need. It is strongly correlated with the relational breakdown. For example, 71 percent of poor families with children are headed by a single parent. Marriage reduces the probability of child poverty by 82 percent. If we want to get serious about fighting child poverty, we need to get serious about restoring a culture of marriage.
The relational capital of civil-society institutions such as churches and ministries has a powerful role to play in transforming lives, rebuilding relationships, and restoring communities. In Ohio yesterday, Ryan highlighted the work of Bob Woodson at the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, based in Washington, D.C.: Woodson’s work to empower leaders to transform troubled neighborhoods has touched thousands of lives.
Woodson is focused on restoring responsibility, and his work is the sort of effort of civil society that government policy needs to respect. Sadly, as Ryan said, “we’re still trying to measure compassion by how much government spends, not by how many people we help escape from poverty.” He added: “Americans are a compassionate people, and there’s a consensus in this country about our fundamental obligations to society’s most vulnerable. Those obligations are not what we’re debating in politics.”
The debate is over effective compassion. Here, conservatives have a strong record; we need to explain it and expand on it, as Ryan did yesterday: “Welfare reform worked because it encouraged the best in people — it appealed to their desire to shape their own destiny and advance in life. And it made major strides toward getting the government out of the business of fostering dependency.”
When it comes to opening opportunity for all, conservatives must lead the way, “for the sake of millions of Americans who deserve to lead lives of dignity and freedom.”
– Jennifer A. Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation and author of the book Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the Twenty-First Century.