Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Saturday, December 3, 2016

By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-WI), the former Republican vice presidential nominee, launched an attack Monday on the nation’s poverty programs, provoking an election-year confrontation with the White House amid a growing focus on income inequality.

Drawing on his political roots as a student of conservative anti-poverty thinkers, the House Budget Committee chairman said many aspects of the expansion of the federal safety net since President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” 50 years ago were “making it worse.”

Welfare, child care, college Pell grants and other assistance programs are all under the budget guru’s ax in a lengthy critique released in advance of President Barack Obama’s own budget rollout.

The plan returns Ryan to the national stage, where he hopes to position himself as the party’s big thinker in advance of a possible 2016 presidential run.

In the short term, Ryan’s proposal also seeks to introduce some concrete Republican solutions to reverse perceptions that the GOP has become simply the party of “no” in opposition to Obama.

Republican leaders animated voters a generation ago with a pivot toward welfare issues in the 1990s. This year, potential Republican presidential contenders, including Ryan, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, appear eager to revive the debate. Each has offered his own anti-poverty proposal.

But in the run-up to the midterm election, Republicans risk alienating moderate and independent voters if the party’s right-wing stakes out more extreme approaches to cutting off government help for the poor.

“This report will help start the conversation,” Ryan said. “It shows that some programs work; others don’t. And for many of them, we just don’t know. Clearly, we can do better.”

The White House is expected to release Obama’s fiscal 2015 budget Tuesday, and it released a few highlights Monday, including changes in the tax code that would help lower-income Americans. Ryan’s preemptive salvo expands the income inequality discussion that has largely been dominated by Democrats.

The top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, said Ryan’s report “is simply laying the groundwork to slash social safety-net programs.”

“The GOP has never really given up on Mitt Romney’s attack on the 47 percent,” Van Hollen said, referring to the former presidential candidate’s apparent dismissal of those Americans he said were dependent on the government.

Ryan’s 204-page report concludes that the expansion of anti-poverty programs, which number more than 90 and cost almost $800 billion last year, have done little to achieve Johnson’s Great Society goals. The 17.3 percent poverty rate in 1965 is not much different from today’s 15 percent.