Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) remarks as prepared for delivery at the American Enterprise Institute
Hi, everybody. I want to thank Arthur, our panel, and everyone at AEI for hosting us here today.
I look forward to hearing from everybody. But let’s start with a principle we can all agree on: Hardworking taxpayers deserve a break in this country. Too many families are working harder and harder to get ahead, and yet they’re falling further and further behind. The costs of food, housing, and gas keep going up, but paychecks haven’t budged. So whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, I think we can all agree: America deserves better.
What do we want? A healthy economy. And a big part of that is having a strong safety net—both for those who can’t help themselves and for those who just need a helping hand. That’s our goal. The problem is, that’s not what we’re getting—though it’s not for a lack of trying. We spend almost $800 billion on 92 federal programs each year to fight poverty. And yet the poverty rate is the highest in a generation. Deep poverty is near record highs. When you take a step back and look at all this, you just have to think, “We can do better.”
Now, I don’t have all the answers. Nobody does. But the way I see it, we have an obligation to expand opportunity in America—to deliver real change, real solutions, and real results. And to do that, we need to stop listening to the loudest voices in the room—and start listening to the smartest voices in the room.
So I’ve spent the last year traveling all over the country—learning from people fighting poverty on the front lines. I’ve been to a high school in Milwaukee that’s eliminated 14 gangs from school grounds. I’ve been to a church in Indianapolis that’s helped hundreds of men get off drugs. I’ve been to a homeless shelter in Denver and a rehab center in San Antonio. The point is, there’s a lot of good going on in our country. And since Washington can’t fight poverty alone, then it’s time to bring in reinforcements.
So today, I want to start a conversation. I want to talk about how we can repair the safety net and help families get ahead. And then I want to talk about a few other ideas my colleagues in the House and Senate have put forward: proposals on income support, education, criminal justice, and cutting down red tape. Each idea touches on a different topic, but they all reinforce the same principle: Give more flexibility in exchange for more accountability. My thinking is, listen to the “boots on the ground”—the local leaders who are changing the status quo. Let them try unique and innovative ideas with a proven track record. And then test the results.
That’s my guiding principle. And the first place to apply it is the safety net.
Today, federal aid is fragmented and formulaic. Washington looks at each person’s needs in isolation, like food, housing, energy. It doesn’t see how their needs interact. And what’s worse, Washington looks at each person in isolation. It doesn’t see how people need to interact. The secret of our country’s success is collaboration: people working together, learning together, building together—of our own free will. What government should do, then, is encourage collaboration. Bring people together. Get them in the mix. Don’t force them. Empower them.
So what we need to do is coordinate assistance to families in need. Get the public and private sector working together. That’s how we can smooth the transition from assistance to success. The fact is, each person’s needs fit into a coherent whole: a career. And each person fits into a coherent whole: a community. So if the public and private sector work together, we can offer a more personalized, customized form of aid—one that recognizes both a person’s needs and their strengths—both the problem and the potential.
So I’d start a pilot program called the Opportunity Grant. It would consolidate up to eleven federal programs into one stream of funding to participating states. The idea would be to let states try different ways of providing aid and then to test the results—in short, more flexibility in exchange for more accountability. My thinking is, get rid of these bureaucratic formulas. Put the emphasis on results. Participation would be voluntary; no state would have to join. And we would not expand the program until all the evidence was in. The point is, don’t just pass a law and hope for the best. If you’ve got an idea, let’s try it. Test it. See what works. Don’t make promise after promise. Let success build on success.
Here’s how it would work: Each state that wanted to participate would submit a plan to the federal government. That plan would lay out in detail the state’s proposed alternative. If everything passed muster, the federal government would give the green light. And the state would get more flexibility; it would get to combine into one stream of funding up to eleven different programs—things like food stamps, housing assistance, child care, cash welfare. This new, simpler stream of funding would become the Opportunity Grant, and it would be budget neutral. The state would get the same amount of money as under current law—not a penny less.
In effect, the state would say, “Give us some space, and we can figure this out.” And the federal government would say, “Go to it—on four conditions”: First, you’ve got to spend that money on people in need—not roads, not bridges, no funny business. Second, every person who can work should work. Third, you’ve got to give people choices. The state welfare agency can’t be the only game in town. People must have at least one other option, whether it’s a non-profit, a for-profit, what have you. And fourth, you’ve got to test the results. The federal government and the state must agree on a neutral third party to keep track of progress. That’s the deal.
If approved, the state could use that money to expand state programs and to partner with local service providers. In other words, families in need would have a choice. There wouldn’t just be a federal agency or a state agency. Instead, they could choose from a list of certified providers. We’re talking nonprofits, or for-profits, or even community groups unique to your neighborhood. These groups could work with people one-on-one—and provide personalized aid through case management.
Think of it this way: Right now, you have to go to a bunch of different offices to enroll in a bunch of different programs. Under the Opportunity Grant, you could go to one office and work with one person for all your needs. That person would give you financial assistance, but could also act as a personal resource. Maybe you’re struggling with an addiction, and you need counseling. Maybe you come from a broken family, and you need a network of support. The point is, you would work together to get you from where you are to where you want to go.
Take an example. Let’s call her Andrea. She’s 24. She has two kids ages four and two. Her husband left the family six months ago, and she does not know how to contact him. Andrea graduated from high school, but her only work experience was a two-year stint in retail. She and her kids now live with her parents in a two-bedroom mobile home. Her parents can’t support her over the long haul. She’s been trying to find work for the last five months. She doesn’t have a car. She can’t afford child care. And her dream is to become a teacher.
Under this plan, Andrea would go to a local service provider. She would sit down with a case manager and develop an “opportunity plan.” That plan would pinpoint her strengths; her opportunities for growth; her short-, medium-, and long-term goals. The two of them would sign a contract. Andrea would agree to meet specific benchmarks of success, a timeline for meeting them, consequences for missing them, and rewards for exceeding them.
Andrea’s short-term goal is to find a job. But her long-term goal is to find the right job—to become a teacher. So she might find a job in retail to pay the bills. Meanwhile, her case manager would help pay for transportation and child care so she could take classes at night. Over time, Andrea could go to school, get her certification, and find a teaching job. The point is, with someone to coordinate her aid, Andrea would not just find a job; she would start a career.
And all this time, a neutral third party would keep tabs on each provider and their success rate. It would look at key metrics agreed to by the state and federal government: How many people are finding jobs? How many people are getting off assistance? How many people are moving out of poverty? And so on. Any provider who came up short could no longer participate. And at the end of the program, we would pool the results and go from there.
In short, we’re reconceiving the federal government’s role. No longer will it try to supplant our communities but to support them. In my view, the federal government is the rearguard—it protects the supply lines. But the people on the ground—they’re the vanguard. They fight poverty on the front lines. They have to lead this effort, and Washington should follow their lead.
In that spirit, I want to throw my support behind a number of ideas that my colleagues in the House and Senate have put forward. They all expand opportunity by taking decision-making away from Washington and bringing more accountability to government at all levels.
First, we should make sure that in this country it always pays to work. I’d do that by increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit for childless workers. This is one of the few programs that have shown results. It encourages people to work by increasing the rewards of work. And we all know that the more people we have in the work force, the more opportunity we’ll have in this country.
So I’d roughly double the maximum credit for childless workers to $1,005. And I’d lower the minimum eligibility age from 25 to 21. This is similar to what the President has proposed, but with one big difference: I wouldn’t raise taxes. I’d pay for it by eliminating ineffective programs and corporate welfare, like subsidies to energy companies. My thinking is, stop programs that don’t work and support programs that do.
Second, we need to expand access to education. We need to give students more options—in other words, we need accreditation reform, similar to what my friends Senator Mike Lee and Congressman Ron DeSantis have proposed. Let other schools in on the action. And we need to keep reforming our job-training programs. If employers can design their own curriculum, then workers will know just what skills they need.
Third, we need commonsense criminal-justice reform. We need to give people the opportunity to earn a second chance. Luckily, my colleagues have done a lot of good work on this front. Senator Mike Lee and Congressmen Raul Labrador and Bobby Scott have introduced a bill to reform our sentencing guidelines. It would give judges more discretion with low-risk, non-violent offenders. All we’re saying is, they don’t have to give the maximum sentence every time. There’s no reason to lock someone up any longer than necessary.
We also have to tackle recidivism. About half of ex-cons are re-incarcerated within three years of release. But we know there are programs that work—that get people out of a life of crime. That’s why Congressmen Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Bobby Scott of Virginia have introduced the Public Safety Enhancement Act. We’d let low-risk, non-violent offenders exchange time in prison for time in pre-release custody—as long as they complete a program with a proven track record.
Here’s the point: Non-violent, low-risk offenders—don’t lock them up and throw away the key. Get them in counseling; get them in job training; help them rejoin and contribute to our society.
Finally, we need to cut down on bureaucratic red tape. A lot of families are trying to get ahead, but Washington’s getting in the way. So I’d propose a simple rule for all future regulations. If you’re a federal agency, and you want a regulation that would unduly burden low-income families, you’ve got to go to Congress. If they want it, they should have to fight for it—on the record. It’s your government; you deserve a voice and a vote.
All of these are good ideas, but they’re just a start. What we’re releasing today, we’re calling it a “discussion draft,” because it’s meant to start a discussion. So if you have an idea to expand opportunity, we want to hear from you. Send your idea to ExpandingOpportunity@mail.house.gov.
You know, when I went to Milwaukee or Denver or Indianapolis, nobody asked me what party I belonged to. They welcomed anybody who was willing to listen and learn. That should be our approach in Washington. Enough with the politics. Let’s talk solutions—because this isn’t a Republican or a Democratic issue. It’s an American issue.
As a matter of principle, we need to build a society where hard work is rewarded and every American has the opportunity to succeed—regardless of birthplace or background. And to do that, everybody’s got to get involved. If we all work together, we can build a healthy economy. We can fix this. We can get this done. That’s what hardworking taxpayers want—and that’s what they deserve.