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Rep. Ryan Calls For 'Culture Of Inclusion' To Tackle Poverty

Aug 29, 2014
Originally published on August 29, 2014 6:00 am

Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, used to have a habit of describing the American people in two categories. There were the "makers" — people paying taxes — and the "takers" — people getting government benefits.

Today, the Wisconsin Republican says he was wrong, and that the country needs to overhaul how it thinks about poverty. In his new book, The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea, he offers ways to redirect federal spending to fighting poverty.

His plan would merge up to 11 existing benefit programs, allow local charities and welfare offices to customize aid, and add measures to improve accountability. "With aid and support come some expectations," he says. "In far too many ways in our communities, we have isolated the poor, we have marginalized the poor, and we have to reintegrate people in our communities."

Ryan discussed how he's rethinking poverty, and his idea to create "opportunity grants," with NPR's Steve Inskeep.


Interview Highlights

On rethinking "makers" and "takers"

In my opinion it was sort of a callous generalization. This man, a Democrat from the Democratic tent at the county 4-H fair, said, 'So who are the takers? The veteran who comes back from war who gets health care? Or the senior who paid her taxes all these years and is on Medicare?'

And what I realized was it was disparaging people where I really didn't mean to do that.

On whether the GOP has been talking — or thinking — about poverty the wrong way

I'd say ... this isn't just Republicans. I think Republicans and Democrats have been thinking about it the wrong way. And the reason I say this is, look at the results. I do believe we need some fresh thinking on fighting poverty. That's why I put out in July a very comprehensive plan, not to suggest that I've got it all figured out but to get the conversation going, to advance it to a problem-solving mode. I spent a lot of time with Catholic Charities or Lutheran Social Services going around the country and meeting with various groups. People who are really on the front lines fighting poverty, soul to soul, eye to eye, person to person. And so it has caused me to rethink the federal role in all this. And the way I basically see it is the federal government should not be dictating the front lines in the war on poverty; it should be mining the supply lines. What the federal government really brings to the table are resources. What local communities bring are the human touch.

On creating "opportunity grants" to address poverty

What I propose with opportunity grants is to take 11 different programs, which don't really work in conjunction with one another, and bring them together so you combine 11 funding streams to go to the states or localities.

Now what this looks like at the end of the day is a group — let's say it's Catholic Charities that does this very, very well or your local welfare agency — will customize the aid to a person's needs. This lady may need day care, and she may need job training. This guy over here, he may need addiction counseling and he may need a GED. And so you put together a plan. They have a case manager that's assigned to them, so it's one person, one-stop shopping. You don't have a person going around, signing up for different benefits with different government agencies with different cutoffs, where none of this is harmonized and there's no responsibility or accountability involved.

The alternative is the status quo. And the status quo is everybody is treated the same, and these benefits are not actually moving people out of poverty.

On whether extra hurdles imply people in poverty aren't trying hard enough

What I'm implying is you have to have accountability. It's not a one-way street. With aid and support come some expectations. And I think hard-working taxpayers have every right to expect that their money that is going to this person is going to go to a good effect, and that it's something that's not endless.

On criticism that the plan focuses too much on personal problems rather than larger economic issues

In one poverty plan, you're not going to take down the entire macroeconomic policy world. The argument I make in this book is that we have to go toward more of a culture of inclusion. And, specifically with respect to people who are fighting poverty, I would argue, inadvertently, that we have marginalized the poor in many ways.

On criticism that phrases he has used, such as "the culture of the inner city," are racist

That's just ridiculous. There wasn't race in those comments, and race had nothing to do with it. What I was trying to talk about is the culture of work, is work ethic. And to try and reinvigorate and reintegrate people in work. In far too many ways in our communities we have isolated the poor, we have marginalized the poor, and we have to reintegrate people in our communities.

On whether he has a shot at the presidency in 2016

I believe so, but I'm going to do all this consideration back in 2015, not right now. Right now, I want our party to be an ideas party.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Congressman Paul Ryan says he once discovered that part of his standard political rhetoric did not make sense.

REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN: It was one of those moments where I realized, you know what, I was not communicating what I wanted to communicate.

INSKEEP: The moment came in 2012, while Ryan was the Republican nominee for vice president. He says a Wisconsin voter confronted him about a phrase Ryan liked to use - makers and takers. The makers, in Ryan's view, were taxpayers. The takers were people getting government benefits. Today, Ryan says he was wrong. The House Budget Committee chairman is most famous for a budget plan that restrains federal spending. Now, he has published a book offering ways to redirect federal spending to fight poverty more effectively. It's called, "The Way Forward." Ryan is one of several Republicans considering a run for president who say they want to think differently about people who are struggling. He says he is no longer thinking of makers and takers.

RYAN: In my opinion, it was sort of a callous generalization which this man, a Democrat from the Democratic tent at the county 4-H fair, said, so who are the takers - the veteran who comes back from war who gets health care or the senior who paid her taxes all these years and is on Medicare? And what I realized was it was disparaging people where I really didn't mean to do that.

INSKEEP: Well, let me dig into this a little bit. Some people listening to you will remember the 2012 campaign, where Mitt Romney was taped making his 47 percent remark, which was also seen as dividing the country into makers and takers, if you will. Has the Republican Party just been talking about poverty the wrong way or actually thinking about poverty the wrong way?

RYAN: I'd say both. And this isn't just Republicans. I think Republicans and Democrats have been thinking about it the wrong way. And the reason I say this is, look at the results. And so I do believe we need some fresh thinking on fighting poverty. That's why I put out in July a very comprehensive plan - not to suggest that I've got it all figured out, but to get the conversation going, to advance it to a problem-solving mode. I've spent a lot of time with Catholic Charities, or Lutheran Social Services, or going around the country and meeting with various groups, people who are really on the front lines fighting poverty soul-to-soul, eye-to-eye, person-to-person. And so it has caused me to rethink the federal role in all of this. And the way I basically see it is the federal government should not be dictating the frontlines on the war on poverty. It should be mining the supply lines. What the federal government really brings to the table are resources. What local communities bring are the human touch.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned the plan you put out over the summer. I think you're referring to a discussion draft that your House committee put out, talking about economic opportunity and poverty issues. There's one part of it I want to ask about here because you allude to opportunity grants. Would you explain what you mean by that? What's your idea here?

RYAN: So what I propose with opportunity grants is to take 11 different programs which don't really work in conjunction with one another, and bring them together so you combine 11 funding streams to go to the states or localities. And...

INSKEEP: You're talking about programs that give people benefits of different kinds?

RYAN: That's right. That's right. Now, what this looks like at the end of the day is a group. Let's just say it's Catholic Charities that does this very, very well - or your local welfare agency. They customize the aid to a person's needs. This lady may need daycare, and she may need job training. This guy over here, he made need addiction counseling, and he may need a GED. And so you put together a plan. They have a case manager that's assigned to them. So it's one person, one-stop shopping. You don't have a person going around, signing up for different benefits with different government agencies with different cutoffs, where none of this is harmonized and there's no responsibility or accountability involved.

INSKEEP: Two questions come to mind as I listen to you. One is this; when we talk about a case worker kind of helping to manage someone's life and getting them to sign a contract to do certain things, on a political level, if a Democrat proposed that, wouldn't they be described...

RYAN: Yeah, I know.

INSKEEP: As promoting the nanny state?

RYAN: Yeah, I've been getting this criticism from the right on this. The point I would argue is the alternative is a status quo. And the status quo is everybody is treated the same, and these benefits are not actually moving people out of poverty.

INSKEEP: There's another question that comes up though that perhaps is a little more substantive. And that is, by saying that what you want people to do is to sign contracts, do certain things to fix their personal problems, are you implying that a lot of people in poverty just aren't trying hard enough?

RYAN: No, I think what I'm implying is you have to have accountability. It's not a one-way street. With aid and support come some expectations. And I think hard-working taxpayers have every right to expect that their money that is going to this person is going to go to a good effect and that it's something that's not endless.

INSKEEP: David Frum, who is a conservative writer, has looked at your plan and found many things interesting in it but wondered if it missed the point because it focuses on the personal problems that may be connected to some people's poverty, like mental illness, or substance abuse, or a divorce, but maybe misses the larger problems in the economy that are making it a lot harder, even for people who have jobs, to make enough money to live on these days.

RYAN: Well, I agree with that. But in one poverty plan you're not going to take on the entire economic, macroeconomic policy world. (Laughter). The argument I make in this book is that we have to go toward more of a culture of inclusion. And specifically with respect to people who are fighting poverty, I would argue, inadvertently, that we have marginalized the poor in many ways.

INSKEEP: You write in the book that it was hurtful to you when you spoke about poverty using phrases like the culture of the inner city and you were criticized as being racist - essentially being told that you were criticizing black people to win over white voters.

RYAN: Yeah, that's just ridiculous. I wasn't - there wasn't a racial - there wasn't race in those comments. And race had nothing to do with it. What I was trying to talk about is the culture of work, is the work ethic, and to try and reinvigorate and reintegrate people in work. In far too many ways in our communities we have isolated the poor. We have marginalized the poor. And we have to reintegrate people in our communities.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask about the wider context in which that criticism comes. As you know, the Republican Party has been seen as having a primarily white coalition. The Romney-Ryan campaign of 2012 sought to win the election with something over 60 percent of the white vote, if they could get it - that's according to campaign advisers at the time - knowing that you would not get very many black votes, Latino votes, or other minority votes. There was even a campaign adviser who was quoted as saying, we're the last presidential campaign that's ever going to try to win with a primarily white coalition. What is a way that Republicans could do differently?

RYAN: We, as Republicans, if we want to be a majority party, we have to drop these notions. And we have to be a party for everybody. And we have to try for every vote - not just for tactical or strategic reasons, but morally. And so what I'm trying to articulate here is a vision of conservatism that is principled, inclusive and aspirational so that it can appeal to a majority of Americans so that we can actually win things. If there's a thing I learned from being involved in the 2012 election, it's that we can't have this electoral college strategy with the margin of error of one state. We have to open it up. We have to try for every vote. And we have to show people of all different backgrounds and faiths and races and genders that we have better ideas.

INSKEEP: If you run, could you win?

RYAN: I believe so, but I'm going to do all of this consideration back in 2015, not right now. Right now, I want our party to be an ideas party.

INSKEEP: Chairman, thanks very much.

RYAN: My pleasure. Thanks for having me, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan. His book is called "The Way Forward." This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.