Paul Ryan Declares War on the War on Poverty

The Wisconsin Congressman's bold anti-poverty plan picks battles with conservatives and liberals, reducing its chances of passage.
October 2014
President Lyndon Johnson on his "War on Poverty" tour in Kentucky in 1964. Associated Press
By Donald F. Kettl  |  Columnist
The Sid Richardson Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin

In a truly stunning speech this summer, former Republican vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin declared war on the “War on Poverty.” The strategy he offered up is fascinating and thoughtful, and it captures just how much the nation has changed since Lyndon B. Johnson first declared that war 50 years ago.

The plan Ryan proposed gives states the option of combining up to 11 federal grant programs, including food stamps, welfare and housing aid, into a single block grant. States would be given a lot of flexibility in figuring out how best to spend the money; their only objective would be getting clients from welfare to work. The feds, in return, would pledge not to cut funding.

The deal, however, isn’t entirely strings-free. Under Ryan’s plan, four conditions would have to be met. First, all money would have to be spent on people in need. States couldn’t shift federal funds to highways or prisons. Second, the states would hold program recipients accountable through work requirements and time limits for aid. Third, states would have to use at least two service providers for case management, which would require at least one nongovernmental organization to work with government agencies on the front lines. And fourth, states would have to use a “neutral third party” to measure progress through “key metrics.”

Not surprisingly, Democrats are deeply suspicious of Ryan’s war. The plan, after all, comes from someone who said back in 2012 that “we don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency.” Critics have warned that earlier block grants, particularly during the Reagan years, have baited the states with promises of more flexibility only to be slashed and, in some cases, eliminated completely. The Brookings Institution’s Ron Haskins, however, called the plan “a bipartisan proposal very few Republicans would have the courage” to make and that some might not “have the sense to support.”

Johnson’s original war on poverty was top-down, based on assumptions that the states didn’t have the financial ability, management capacity or political will to tackle poverty. Johnson believed the states, enmeshed in desegregation battles, weren’t capable of leading. But the 1996 welfare reform act -- a halfway step toward Ryan’s plan -- put the states in a prime role to run the program’s operations. Ryan now proposes to complete what the 1996 act started, by pushing the states to the front and the feds to the rear guard. His proposal puts him in welfare’s no-man’s-land, between liberals who fear that it’s a trick to slash federal support and conservatives, like Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who want to go even further, forcing block grants on the states in exchange for less money.

There are two big questions at the core of Ryan’s proposal. The first asks just how much should we spend on national programs to help the able-bodied poor to become self-sufficient. On that, we ought to take Ryan at his word that his program is not a stalking horse for budget cuts. And we need to trust that the states will not juggle funds to cut overall aid for the poor. The second question is more interesting but much tougher: How best can we make these programs work? The last 50 years of Johnson’s war, Ryan concluded, had produced programs that were fragmented, expensive, inflexible and ineffective, and they trapped the poor in a long pattern of dependence on government. He says he wants to help the poor escape welfare by tailoring strategies for each individual, ensuring competition in providing services and focusing on accountability for results.

The first goal has deep roots, but the challenge of weaving together different programmatic strands to craft a safety net for each individual has plagued the War on Poverty since the beginning. Ryan’s hope is that solutions will work better if they’re built from the bottom up.

The second goal builds on 50 years of experience. One of the hidden pieces of Johnson’s war was the creation of a vast network of nonprofit organizations funded by federal programs, so there’s lots of room for competition in service provision. In fact, much of the governmental safety net is now woven with nongovernmental yarn. The trick has always been overseeing this net well, and that will be even more important in Ryan’s war.

The third goal is probably the toughest to achieve. There’s no such thing as a truly “neutral third party,” and the clash over the program’s metrics will be fierce. But Ryan clearly means to pick a fight and to slug it out over what strategies produce which results. Building the safety net into a web of evidence is Ryan’s biggest fight for the future.

There’s much to like in Ryan’s war. In crafting his plan, though, he’s picked battles with so many key players that it might be impossible to get enough votes to pass the plan. That’s too bad. If the program were passed, it would certainly be the center of fierce battle, but we’d also be far more likely to end up fighting over the right things in trying to win the nation’s long-running war on poverty.