Paul Ryan doesn’t want to talk about Donald Trump. The Speaker of the House said earlier this month that he will not defend his party’s nominee for president. Instead, he’ll focus on saving the Republican House majority, and on “A Better Way” — a policy paper written by the GOP’s Task Force on Poverty, Opportunity, and Upward Mobility. Through “A Better Way,” Ryan believes he can uplift America’s poor while appealing to liberal and independent voters in blue states nationwide. Since its debut in June, following a lengthy “listening tour” of urban neighborhoods and churches, the effort has been Ryan’s primary focus (even on Twitter). As the Trump campaign continues to sink, Ryan sees “A Better Way” as a much needed lifeboat.
“A Better Way” has been touted as a departure from typical conservative policymaking, and a way to make the GOP a party of propositions rather than just opposition. Ryan’s plan has also caught the attention of progressives because of its focus on criminal justice reform; his strategy endorses reducing mandatory minimum sentences on drug offenses and helping former prisoners find jobs after release. “Once people have paid their debt to society,” the plan states, “they should be able to move on.”
Under a GOP White House, parts of “A Better Way” could become law. But Ryan (and other members of the House GOP) believes his proposals could appeal to even a Democratic White House — and more importantly, to liberal and progressive voters who might not otherwise vote Republican in down-ballot races in 2016 and 2020.
Roughly 13.5 percent of all Americans are living under the poverty line (for a single person, that means earning less than $11,880 a year — which, it should be noted, is a remarkably low threshold). That includes millions of millennials, the poorest generation in 25 years. Ever since Democratic President Lyndon Johnson declared a “War on Poverty” in 1964, the federal government has spent billions on programs intended to mitigate its effects. But for many conservatives, poverty isn’t the result of a government failing to act — it’s a side effect of the government doing too much, and it can only be solved by getting out of the picture entirely. As Marco Rubio wrote in National Review in August, on the 20th anniversary of Bill Clinton signing welfare reform into law, “liberals see the world of individual and state — that individual needs must be met by an ever-expanding, top-down government.”
By contrast, many conservatives — including Ryan — believe in what Slate’s Reihan Salam calls “reap what you sow” economics. “Simply put,” Salam writes, “this is a belief that people should be rewarded in accordance with the contributions they make and they should bear the consequences of their own mistakes.” The way to end poverty, then, isn’t to shelter the poor; it’s to use private entities like churches and businesses to help the poor make choices that conservatives believe will end the problem of poverty itself.
Oren Cass, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, told MTV News in an email that from a conservative perspective, when it comes to poverty, “most of the federal government’s efforts have (at best) accomplished very little for the amount they cost or (at worst) done more harm than good.” He added that while many antipoverty efforts “emphasize measures to improve living standards of those in poverty, Ryan’s proposals focus on measures that will encourage people to work and earn more as a way to move out of poverty.” In other words, Ryan’s plan is a slight separation from orthodox conservative thought on poverty, but it’s not an outright deviation from the norm.
Scott Winship, a former Manhattan Institute senior fellow, emphasized that point as well. “Speaker Ryan believes that poverty and immobility cannot be solved by simply giving poor families more money and points to the limited impact that trillions of dollars in spending have had over the past 50 years,” he told MTV News. “In fact, he believes that federal programs have too often created disincentives for beneficiaries to escape poverty — discouraging them from saving, taking work, getting married, and delaying childbearing. Expanding opportunity requires that we reform safety net policies to remove those disincentives."
The problem is that removing what conservatives call “disincentives” means, in many cases, removing the safety nets that protect the poor and middle class from financial predators. Among the features of Ryan’s plan is the elimination of the “fiduciary rule,” which requires that financial advisors helping people save for retirement act in their client’s best interest. That means that financial advisors, under Ryan’s “A Better Way,” could keep convincing older people to put their money into retirement plans with higher fees (that then go to the financial advisor). Policies like Ryan’s also promise to encourage young people to get jobs while ignoring the fact that a lot of those young people already have them: Eleven percent of 16- to 19-year-olds and 13 percent of 20- to 24-year-olds are considered to be among the “working poor” — meaning that they are working but still living under the poverty line.
More concerning is that Ryan’s strategy continues the conservative trend of stigmatizing people below the poverty line for being there in the first place. As Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Greg Kaufmann told MTV News, conservatives “look at someone in poverty, and in essence, believe they just aren’t trying hard enough.” Poverty is an error, to this way of thinking, caused not by structural inequities, but by personal failure, and the only way to get people out of poverty is to make it impossible to exist in poverty.
Kaufmann added that the Ryan plan would cut federal programs like Head Start (which helps lower-income children get ready to go to kindergarten) and reduce funding for housing and nutrition assistance in an environment in which 21.3 million Americans spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. “Ryan does all this,” Kaufmann said, “while insisting that people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps even though they are working for poverty wages.”
Paul Ryan wants to distance himself from the 2016 presidential race and talk about poverty instead. But how Ryan — and other conservatives — talk about poverty is aimed more at fixing spiritual shortcomings than alleviating structural inequality, more at getting young people married than getting them financial support or well-paying jobs. By presenting his plans as a departure from typical conservative rhetoric — created with the benefit of black and urban input, no less — Ryan’s plan could appeal to some progressive-minded voters. Parts of this proposal could become law — regardless of who wins the White House. And that could mean more hardship for people who are already facing far too much of it.