Paul Ryan on Wednesday devoted an entire speech to subjects that have been largely absent from the election-year rhetoric: poverty and income mobility. Video of the speech is below.
Speaking to a crowd at Cleveland State University, the Republican vice presidential nominee said the United States had failed to live up to one of the country’s ideals: that of equal opportunity.
"In so many ways, our nation’s history has been a long struggle to bring opportunity into life," he said. "Even though so many barriers to equality have fallen, too many old inequities persist."
Poverty rates are rising, food stamp use has increased dramatically, and our public education system is failing students, Ryan explained in the course of arguing that too many poor children lack the opportunity to rise out of poverty.
"Right now, America’s engines of upward mobility aren’t working the way they should," he said. "The question before us today—and it demands a serious answer—is how do we get the engines of upward mobility turned back on, so that no one is left out from the promise of America?"
The answer, Ryan argued, was to rethink the federal government’s approach over the last several decades, which he characterized as spending "lots of money on centralized, bureaucratic, top-down anti-poverty programs."
For the amount of money the federal government spent last year on such programs, Ryan said, the government could have simply written a $22,000 check to every poor person in America.
A Romney-Ryan administration would offer "real reforms for lifting people out of poverty," he said, citing the bipartisan welfare reform law signed by President Bill Clinton in the 1990s as an example of a successful approach that should be applied "across the spectrum of anti-poverty programs."
Ryan emphasized education reform, including school choice and defeating entrenched special interest groups in schoolhouses, as well as strengthening civil institutions such as churches and charities, as critical to fostering income mobility.
Ryan received a standing ovation when he pledged to overturn the Obama administration’s new rules requiring health plans offered by Catholic institutions to provide free contraception, an example of the government’s creeping intrusion into civil society.
Growing the economy, and getting the nation’s spending and debt under control to avoid a financial crisis, are also vital, he said, because the poor and vulnerable are always the hardest hit.
Though Ryan acknowledged that Republicans "don’t always do a good job" of laying out this vision, he slammed the oft-repeated argument that Republicans "think everybody should just fend for themselves."
"That’s just a false argument … a straw man set up to avoid genuine debate," he said.
Ryan has been highlighting these themes since long before Mitt Romney chose him as a running mate in August.
"Look at the results of the government-centered approach to the war on poverty," he said in April during a speech at Georgetown University. "One in six Americans are in poverty today—the highest rate in a generation. In this war on poverty, poverty is winning. We need a better approach."
Ryan’s speech called to mind his critique of "government-imposed barriers to upward mobility" in his opening remarks at a June hearing of the House Budget Committee, which he chairs.
Income mobility, which has been significantly undermined by President Barack Obama’s policies, was an important issue for Republicans to advance, said Yuval Levin, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
"It’s important for Republicans to advance a positive social vision," he told the Washington Free Beacon. "Something that is not just a critique of the progressive vision."
Ryan’s emphasis on civil institutions was particularly relevant, Levin said, because of what he described as the "active effort to inject government into civil society."
"I think there's been an effort to turn the charitable sector into an arm of government," Levin said. "This has always been a big difference between conservatives and liberals that is worth articulating. There are some things the government is never going to be able to do."
Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said income mobility was a "vitally important issue" that is too often ignored.
"We talk about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but it’s difficult for low income people to pursue happiness if they don't have economic mobility," she told the Free Beacon.
Allowing for greater school choice, Furchtgott-Roth argued, as well as promoting access to community colleges, would be a "major step" toward promoting such mobility.
The president’s policies over the past four years, however, have failed to adequately address the problem.
"We have seen a lot of government spending and it hasn't worked," she said.