President Obama famously accused Representative Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) of “thinly veiled Social Darwinism” for one of his budgets. It will take a special kind of cynicism to make that claim about Ryan’s new anti-poverty proposal. Obama’s partisans will no doubt find a way, but fair-minded observers will see a creative, thoughtful approach to a topic that’s often politically neglected.
Ryan proposes and endorses a range of ideas to fix the safety net and address the root causes of poverty. He would offer states the option of an “opportunity grant” to replace, dollar for dollar, the amount of money they currently receive to implement most means-tested federal poverty programs (food stamps, housing assistance, utilities subsidies, etc.). States would then be allowed to come up with their own ways to spend this money on their poor residents, as long as they spend it on programs that require work, emphasize reaching self-sufficiency, and prove their effectiveness.
Ryan proposes similar ideas and more flexibility for a range of federal education spending programs, too. Block grants would allow the consolidation of a herd of federal programs and should allow states to experiment with solutions that meet their own needs. It’s important, though, not to confuse block grants with a more purely federalist approach in which state governments raised the money and spent it themselves. Federal taxpayers can reasonably put restrictions on how state governments experiment with their money. Congress needs to write some clear and sensible requirements for the checks it’s going to send to states. This is not impossible. Welfare reform in 1996 successfully combined more freedom for the states with the imposition of work requirements on them.
Undergirding Ryan’s proposal are the reasonable conclusions that most federal anti-poverty programs — and other federal programs, such as education funding — still do not work very well and that they are not going to disappear. So he means to make them less conducive to long-term dependency. One program that does work, the earned-income tax credit, which cuts the poverty rate and draws people into the workforce, he wants to expand and reform. A few of Ryan’s proposals, such as his suggestions for reforming an overgrown and ineffective criminal-justice system, already have bipartisan support (some, even the president supports). But many of his new ideas are another indication that it’s only one party that’s proposing solutions to fix a broken federal government.
Paul Ryan led the way a few years ago by proposing to address the biggest driver of our looming federal debt crisis: Medicare. By the force of his intellect and commitment he brought his party along with him. More recently, other Republicans — especially Senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio — have put forward ideas about how smaller and smarter government can advance the interests of the poor and the middle class. Now Ryan is offering more innovation. To the extent that these officeholders are trying to define the party’s future and their own place within it, they’re engaged in a very healthy competition — one that other Republicans ought to join.