Opinion Columns & Blogs

Rep. Ryan’s conversation starter on poverty

Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan is looking to spark a much-needed conversation about how the federal government fights poverty. Give the man credit for trying. And give him credit for listening and for incorporating some of the opposing side’s ideas into his new anti-poverty plan.

Ryan’s plan, released earlier this summer, is a good starting point for a discussion that should begin anew after the midterm elections, when he likely will become chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

We would not support everything in the Ryan plan. He’s just plain wrong in his analysis of the minimum wage. He opposes an increase in the wage, arguing that it will end up costing the nation jobs, but the overall effect, accounting for modest job losses, is a net positive for working families. Studies show that boosting the wage to $10.10 an hour over three years would lift 4 million people out of poverty.

We’re also skeptical of Ryan’s plan to consolidate means-tested federal programs including welfare, child care and food stamps into a single grant to states. The idea is to spur innovation and give states greater flexibility, which sounds good in theory but could in practice lead to lost benefits. His idea to limit the trial to only a few states might be worth considering.

Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit beyond families with children to more childless workers strikes us as smart policy and is similar to a proposal from President Barack Obama. We also think Ryan is right that federal education and job training programs – including student loans – need a fresh look. He’s also right that federal judges need more flexibility in sentencing; the nation is locking up way too many low-risk and nonviolent offenders, which hits minority communities hard.

Politically, Ryan is attempting to move back to his roots as the pragmatic Jack Kemp acolyte and away from the corrosive “makers and takers” rhetoric that made Republicans seem so heartless in the last presidential campaign.

Democrats remain skeptical, which is understandable, but they should welcome the congressman’s olive branch and be willing to debate him on the merits of his ideas. The nation needs new ideas on combating poverty, and Ryan has offered his.