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Ryan's Anti-Poverty Plan a Good Conversation Starter

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat calls them “reformocons,” or “libertarian populists.” They are a small, not quite influential, but growing in stature group of center-right public policy experts, intellectuals, and commentators who are trying to hash out a reform agenda for the Republican Party — with limited success so far. A major reason for their failure is that they take a non-ideological approach to developing public policy — decidedly out of step with most of those who call themselves conservative today. And the fact that they actually seek to make government better, instead of making it disappear, is another reason they receive short shrift from many movement conservatives.

For several years now, one of the boldest of these reformocons has been Rep. Paul Ryan. The former vice presidential candidate offered a budget outline in 2012 that suggested, among other reform proposals, a voucher program for Medicare which caused liberals to blow a gasket. (Of course, in 10 years we will probably look back on Ryan’s Medicare ideas and wonder why we didn’t adopt them when we had the chance.)

On Thursday, Rep. Ryan gave a speech at the American Enterprise Institute where he outlined a bold, innovative program to fight poverty. Callie Gable of NRO has some good analysis of the plan, but here are some bare-bones highlights:

* Expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit. The Ryan plan calls for a doubling of the controversial program for childless adults and to “expand the credit in ways which better incentivize work and attract young adults to the workforce than the status quo or some other popular proposals.”

* Opportunity Grants. These grants would give states “the ability to use the funds they currently get for a range of programs to run individually focused programs specifically intended to help needy individuals achieve upward mobility and stay out of poverty long term.”

The program would build on the success of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act:

Disadvantaged Americans would each be pared with an individual case worker, with whom they would agree on personalized short and long-term goals (e.g., apply for child support or begin drug counseling) set out in “contracts.” Most important, Ryan is building on the success of the 1990s welfare-reform laws here: A key element of the contracts would be encouraging work, which, currently, only cash welfare requires. Food stamps, federal housing aid, utilities assistance, and more don’t have work requirements — this would essentially mandate that states opting for the Opportunity Grant implement work requirements.

* Ditch the Head Start program and turn its funding into block grants to the states so that they can experiment with early childhood education programs to see what works.

* Reform federal college loan programs to make them easier to apply for and give the applicant more information on the costs associated with the loan.

* Get rid of most of the “accreditation cartels” that stand in the way of educational opportunities for the poor.

Reform of sentencing laws, especially for drug offenses, making rehab easier to get for prison inmates, regulatory reform, consolidating data on federal programs to see if they are performing as intended — it’s a smorgasbord of changes designed to bring a degree of federalism to government not seen for decades. It will streamline anti-poverty efforts, weeding out those programs that don’t work while empowering individuals to help themselves out of poverty without cutting the safety net.

Reactions are cautiously positive. Reihan Salam calls the plan “paternalistic” but also “a thoughtful, compassionate blueprint for a better social safety net.” Jennifer Rubin thinks that “Ryan’s effort is a critical part of the effort to revive the conservative movement and, yes, change its image as the party of old, rich, white men.” Ross Douthat:

[T]he Ryan proposals are the latest evidence for what “even the liberal New Republic’s” Danny Vinik recently conceded is a growing contrast between the policy ferment on the Republican side of the aisle and the staleness and or small-ball quality of the Democratic Party’s “what comes after Obama?” agenda.

But will it work? And more prosaically, is all of this really necessary? Put aside the debate about the efficacy of the social safety net and whether the programs currently in place are actually reducing poverty. We know they’re not, but it is somewhat beside the point. That’s because Ryan may not have successfully defined the problem of poverty, thereby offering solutions that miss the mark.

Jamelle Bouie of Slate points to some raw statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau that raise questions about Ryan’s rationale for much of his anti-poverty agenda:

[P]overty in America is fluid; depending on the season, the unstable nature of market work may force a period of personal retrenchment.

The research bears this out. According to the latest Survey of Income and Program Participation, which draws from three years of interviews from a representative sample of American households, almost one-third of Americans were poor for two months or more during 2009, 2010, and 2011. More importantly, 44 percent of those poverty “spells” ended within four months and only 15.2 percent lasted more than two years. By contrast, just 3.5 percent of the population was poor for all three years—a tiny constituency for the kind of generational poverty that needs a Ryan-esque intervention.

At the left-leaning think tank Demos, Matt Bruenig crunches the numbers of the Census Bureau’s 2012 social and economic supplement to its annual population survey and identifies the “officially poor” as “35 percent children, 8 percent elderly, 9 percent disabled, 8 percent student, 18 percent working, and 21 percent everyone else.” He concludes: “The adult, able-bodied, non-student poor who lack personal market income comprise 3 percent of the population.”

What we like to think of as “generational” poverty is actually only a fraction of the problem. Hence, Ryan’s scheme to take most of the safety net spending and turn it into block grants might be more efficient, but it wouldn’t necessarily make much of a dent in the poverty problem.

Currently, the poverty rate is about 16%, with 20% of children living in households below the poverty line. A family of four earning $23,850 is considered below the poverty line, but that doesn’t include federal assistance programs like TANF and SNAP.  Where Ryan’s program has real value is in the way it applies small, but significant changes to the safety net that actually would improve people’s chances of getting out of poverty — especially those who are working.

The rationale for attacking the poverty issue is that by making millions of people more productive, it will lead to more economic growth, increase federal and state revenues, and take pressure off of government budget deficits.

And that’s a reason that the reform conservatives may be on the right track. Douthat:

[T]he American right does need to focus on those issues, because that’s where the action is, and where it often deserves to be. Right now, Republicans lack a clear alternative to Obamacare and/or a strategy for reforming the health care law if it can’t be overturned; they lack a clear vision for tax reform that’s both pro-growth and responsive to the anxieties of middle and lower-income voters; they lack an approach to federal spending that sets plausible targets for discretionary spending; and they lack any kind of immediate response to the problem of mass unemployment. And then more broadly, they lack a policy portfolio that’s clearly connected to the strongest right-of-center analysis of the social challenges facing 21st century America — the Charles Murray/Brad Wilcox vision of a downscale social crisis slowly working its way upward into the middle class.

The Ryan plan attacks the problem of poverty on several different fronts simultaneously. In that, it is quite innovative. But aside from a few policy wonks in Washington and the pundit class that always enjoys something meaty to analyze and discuss, is there any relevance at all to Ryan’s proposals?

From a political point of view, not much. Conservatives are not likely to embrace much of the plan, while liberals have already damned it by praising some of it. Poverty as an important issue facing the country doesn’t even make an appearance in this Pew poll from May.

But from a governance standpoint, can conservatives afford to ignore it? If the right wants to govern, it must show the American voter that it is ready to govern all of us — rich, poor, middle class — and address the issues important to all citizens. Ryan’s plan would be DOA in Congress, but as a conversation starter, it’s an excellent appetizer. His big, bold ideas are just the sort of thing that conservatives should be debating — consequential ideas that can reinvent a conservative approach to governing and reinvigorate intellectual conservatism when it is possibly at its nadir.

For a movement that was bereft of major ideas following the debacles of 2008 and 2012, the reform conservatives have stepped up and filled a void that needed filling. At least, there is a baseline from which all on the right can begin to talk and strategize, giving flesh to the bone and sinew of a political campaign.

That would certainly come in handy in 2016.