Paul Ryan’s Anti-Poverty Guru Still Expects Some Legislation “This Year”

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
April 3 2014 8:43 AM

Paul Ryan’s Anti-Poverty Guru Still Expects Some Legislation “This Year”

"This year? Really?" Ryan thinks.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In the months leading up to the release of Rep. Paul Ryan's new budget, leaks to friendly sources suggested it would contain something new. "The upcoming House Republican budget will focus on welfare reform and recommend a sweeping overhaul of social programs," reported Robert Costa last month, after Ryan had given some short speeches about poverty and released a study of possible overhauls to programs. "Putting a comprehensive anti-poverty agenda alongside efforts to devise an alternative to the federal health-care law is a GOP priority."

But the budget contains none of this—no new health care reforms, no poverty program reforms. Jonathan Chait saw it coming.

Ryan and his colleagues have devoted a lot of rhetorical attention to the 47 percent, or the "takers," and the corresponding need to stop letting them take stuff. Ryan wants it to be known that he does not personally have anything against the takers. And, who knows — maybe he doesn't. But even if you were to exterminate every wisp of anti-taker hostility within the party, what would remain behind is not love but disinterest. He and his party will always care about low taxes and high defense spending more.

Throughout the whole "quiet pitch" period, Ryan had been talking with and touring cities with community organizer Robert Woodson. I called up Woodson to see whether he was disappointed by the lack of solutions in the Ryan budget.

"Both the budgets of the Republicans and the Democrats are political documents," said Woodson. "They’re intended for the next election. Repeal of Obamacare is not going to pass, and raising the federal minimum wage is not going to pass. We have to wait till the election is over to do something serious."

But as we kept talking, Woodson pushed up the schedule.

"This summer, we’re planning to bring our group together—50 allies from around the country," he said. "I think this is an appropriate year to do it. It has be done this year, because of the anniversary of the War on Poverty. And I do think there will be some specific, concrete anti-poverty proposals put on the table. That’s the reason that I consented to take [Ryan] around. But rather than government policy driving programs to aid the poor, we must look at policies that are working from the bottom up."

Woodson was confident that Ryan would come up with something, eventually, and that the activists he'd been listening to would keep hounding him. "To Paul Ryan’s credit, he has asked us for our help and he has taken the time to meet with us and travel with us," he said. I challenge any other politician to do that. Many people who represent poor communities and poor cities aren't doing that."

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 


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