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.