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.
But analysts at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning think tank, said the outcome was more mixed than Ryan’s overview suggested.
Without federal assistance, more Americans would probably be in poverty, the center concluded. When the poverty rate is measured not just by income but also includes non-cash assistance from food stamps, housing aid and other federal programs, it has steadily improved, according to Sharon Parrott, a vice president at the center.
Ryan concedes the point in the report’s appendix, saying such a measurement “has implications for both conservatives and liberals. For conservatives, this suggests that federal programs have actually decreased poverty.”
Democrats also point out that personal incomes, which had consistently risen in the middle of the 20th century, flattened over the last 30 years, with few gains for earners at the middle and low end of the scale — contributing to poverty levels.
“If you’re going to say, ‘Here’s the even-handed treatment of these complicated subjects’… it really calls into question how even-handed a presentation we’re getting,” Parrott said.
Among Republicans, Ryan ascended as a budget leader after drafting austere proposals that would have slashed federal spending, including steep cuts to Medicare and Medicaid — and won overwhelming approval from the GOP majority in the House.
After his failed campaign with Romney for the White House, Ryan kept a lower profile. But he emerged late last year to broker a bipartisan budget accord with Senator Patty Murray (D-WA).
Because that deal set federal spending levels for this year and next, neither the president’s budget nor the one Ryan will produce in the weeks ahead for House Republicans will carry much legislative weight. They will be used mostly on the campaign trail heading into the November midterm election.
Ryan’s poverty report will underpin the House Republicans’ broader budget plan, which is likely to revisit his signature proposal to revamp Medicare into a voucher program. That idea drew boos for Ryan during the presidential campaign.
He would change what is now a largely open-ended health care program for seniors into one that limits the federal contribution for the next generation, those 56 and younger.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH) has said he expects Ryan to present a budget for the chamber to consider. Key to Ryan’s success will be whether he can corral House Republicans to approve it.
Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr