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Washington Examiner: Can Republicans take on poverty?

January 9, 2016
News Stories

Washington Examiner - Susan Ferrechio

House Speaker Paul Ryan wants to give anti-poverty legislation a prominent spot on the Republican agenda in 2016, a move that would give the party ownership of a traditionally Democratic issue and put it prominently in the congressional spotlight for the first time in decades.

Republicans last took the lead on welfare reform two decades ago and hope to do it again this year, kicking off the effort at a major anti-poverty forum Saturday in Columbia, S.C., hosted by Ryan and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.

In addition to Ryan and Scott, most of the GOP presidential candidates plan to jump off the campaign trail to participate, with the notable exception of front-runner Donald Trump.

"The high level of candidate interest indicates that our party is not willing to concede this issue to the Democrats," Ryan said Friday in a Wall Street Journal op-ed co-authored with Scott. "We see Saturday's forum as our party's chance to stop carping from the cheap seats and to get into the driver's seat. By offering real solutions, Republicans can define the proper role of the federal government in the 21st century and show the country what a true opportunity agenda looks like."

House Republicans say they like the idea of taking on poverty.

"It's a really smart thing to do," Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., told the Washington Examiner. "There needs to be a Republican way to address everything from poverty to unequal income distribution, and if there's a way to find that way and package it in a way that is intellectually coherent and politically appealing, I think Ryan is the person to do it."

Ryan first proposed an anti-poverty plan in 2014, and other GOP lawmakers have introduced their own legislation over the years aimed at reducing poverty.

Republican anti-poverty solutions center on improving education and job opportunities, expanding work requirements for welfare recipients and allowing states and communities the flexibility to devise their own plans to combat poverty using federal money.

A focal point of Paul's plan includes consolidating 11 federal programs into one block grant for the states, which would be required to impose work requirements on means-tested welfare recipients.

Scott has introduced legislation that would allow some children to use federal money to attend private schools in order to escape low-performing public schools.

Republicans argue that the 80 existing federal welfare programs cost $750 billion annually, but have done little to elevate the poor since President Lyndon Johnson began the federal government's effort to extinguish poverty in 1964.

"I'd combine a lot of them and send that money back to the states for better poverty-fighting solutions," Ryan said in a recent address at the Library of Congress. "Require everyone who can, to work. Let states and communities try different ideas. And then test the results."

The ideas are ambitious, and unlikely to become law this year.

Bill Clinton was president the last time Congress passed a major welfare reform bill in 1996. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act was a historic compromise between Democrats and the Republican-led House, under Speaker New Gingrich, who made welfare reform a centerpiece of the GOP's "Contract with America."

But Obama has been far less willing to work with GOP ideas than Clinton, and he's much more liberal. During his presidency, the 1996 work requirement for welfare recipients was loosened and spending on welfare programs increased dramatically.

House Democrats have been critical of Ryan's proposals, pointing to an analysis by the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities that warns his plan would jeopardize critical federal assistance for the very poor by steering funds to new programs that would produce negligible increases in employment.

A House Democratic poverty task force calls for more coordination between federal and local governments, raising the minimum wage and preserving the availability of food stamps and affordable housing. "The ideas we've seen thus far constitute more of a war on the poor than a war on poverty," Drew Hammill, deputy chief of staff to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told the Examiner of the GOP's plans.

Despite the philosophical divide over how to combat poverty, a longtime Democrat who served when Bill Clinton was president said the two sides can work together again.

Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon who voted against the 1996 welfare reform law, said he sees a path forward, even though he opposed the effort two decades ago.

"I think it's possible for Democrats and Republicans to come together," said Lewis, D-Ga. "I think we have to reach out to the Republicans and meet them and try to work with them, to get something done. We have to do it. We can do it."

Online: Washington Examiner