Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) is calling for a new vision of the social safety net that would give struggling Americans a hand up during tough economic times.
The House Budget Committee chairman said on Friday that lawmakers should begin to craft a new, more modern vision of the safety net that not only helps the elderly and disabled, but also those looking for work and a new career. Ryan unveiled his new anti-poverty plan, "Expanding Opportunity in America," in a speech Thursday at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).
"The safety net is something I agree with, Americans agree with," he said on a conference call. "If you agree with having a safety net, the question is, ‘is it working?’ I would say no."
"We can help opportunity. We can help upper mobility," he added. "This is part of our proposal to make our safety net work. I think it agrees with our Constitution, with our founding principles, with a limited federal government role, and with popular consent."
Ryan argued that the federal government expends enormous resources—$800 billion each year on 92 federal programs—to combat poverty. However, the number of Americans in "deep poverty," meaning those who make less than 50 percent of the federal poverty line, has reached its highest level in decades.
Fifty years after former President Lyndon B. Johnson’s "Great Society," the federal government still does not have a way to measure the effectiveness of its anti-poverty programs, Ryan said on the call.
"You could fund this at any level you want to," he said. "The point is, are these programs even working in the first place and what can we do to make them better. If we just measure our efforts in fighting poverty on how many dollars we spend or not we’re going to miss the boat again."
Ryan’s proposal would consolidate eleven federal assistance programs into one funding stream called an "Opportunity Grant," which would provide participating states with more flexibility to administer anti-poverty programs in exchange for more oversight at the federal level.
His plan also includes income support, education, criminal justice, and regulatory reforms aimed at helping low-income and working-class Americans.
States that volunteer to participate in Ryan’s plan would receive the same amount of money they do under current law, making it budget neutral. They could develop their own programs to disburse aid such as food stamps, housing assistance, and childcare, as long as there are work requirements and partnerships with non-public entities—such as non-profit charities or for-profit institutions.
States would also need to agree with the federal government on a neutral third party that could track the progress of their programs. A federal commission of experts would help develop a "data clearing house" for evaluating the state programs, Ryan said.
Ryan traveled across the country in recent months to observe how groups were fighting poverty on a local level. His take away was that the federal government should play a "supporting" role, not a "suffocating, displacing, or dominating" one.
"It’s incredible what is going on out there in America," he said. "There are some amazing solutions and incredible people who are breaking all the odds and actually succeeding in helping people get out of poverty in a positive way."
Ryan’s other key proposal is expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a tax relief measure that encourages work. He would double the maximum credit for childless workers to $1,005 and lower the minimum eligibility age from 25 to 21.
Ryan also calls for accreditation reform to expand higher education options, changes to the criminal justice system that would help rehabilitate non-violent offenders, and more congressional oversight of regulations that could harm low-income Americans.
The congressman is likely to face resistance from Democrats who view his plan as a guise to gut the safety net, and Republicans who think it should focus more on cutting spending.
Responses from the GOP have been positive so far, Ryan said.
"[Sen.] Marco Rubio [(R., Fla.)] gave me a call yesterday complimenting me on it," he said. "I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback."
Rubio, a potential GOP presidential candidate in 2016 along with Ryan, has also proposed his own ideas to tackle poverty.
Ryan said he hopes to bring up his plan as legislation next session, when he is likely to be chairman of the House Ways and Means committee.