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House Speaker Paul Ryan: Fort Worth 'talking the talk and walking the walk' on poverty

Speaker Paul Ryan praises Catholic Charities Fort Worth

House Speaker Paul Ryan uses private town hall meeting at Catholic Charities Fort Worth to talk talks about his vision for helping people in poverty and administering welfare and social services.
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House Speaker Paul Ryan uses private town hall meeting at Catholic Charities Fort Worth to talk talks about his vision for helping people in poverty and administering welfare and social services.

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan had to see for himself.

For years, he had heard about a Catholic Charities Fort Worth program geared to help people lift themselves out of poverty. On Tuesday, the Wisconsin Republican paid a visit for a firsthand look.

"I wanted to come see it with my own two eyes," Ryan said during a private town hall with about 200 supporters of the charity. "This is a beautiful story that needs to be told throughout the country.

"Organizations like Catholic Charities are doing heroic work in our communities to fight poverty," he said. "This is among the keys to breaking the cycle and getting more people into good-paying jobs."

During his brief visit, Ryan met with clients of the program, toured the facility and sat in on a roundtable with Fort Worth Catholic Bishop Michael Olson, U.S. Rep. Kay Granger and Mayor Betsy Price, among others.

On Monday, he was in Dallas to tour Southwest Airlines' headquarters and talk with employees who got bonuses after the federal tax overhaul late last year.

Critics took to social media to express their displeasure with Ryan's DFW stay, saying that private town halls aren't really town halls — and that Ryan should hold these gatherings in his home state and not in Texas. "I've never heard of Fort Worth, Wisconsin," someone tweeted.

Olson said he was glad Ryan had a chance to see Fort Worth's model in action.

"This is an opportunity to be heard that the poor are not our enemy," he said. "They are not people whom we need to fear. They are, as Jesus taught, our brother and sister."

No 'one-size-fits-all' approach

Catholic Charities helps people of few means gain access to education, job training and even U.S. citizenship. This individual approach is key at a time when there are about 80 federal programs that spend nearly $1 trillion a year fighting poverty, Ryan, who is Catholic, told the crowd.

"The case management system is the best possible system," he said. "It's individual, it's focused, it's customized. The cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work."

If given the chance, Ryan said, he would consolidate most of the federal poverty programs, direct much of the work to local charities and develop a way to measure which programs are the most successful.

He hopes that a bill he has worked on with U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to create a transparent data collection and analysis system for that purpose will become law this year.

At the same time, he fears that "well-intended" government benefits may be holding some people back, perhaps giving them incentives to continue in their life's path rather than find a job.

"The federal government's poverty fighting [approach] is basically described as this: 'You're stuck in your current station in life. The government's here to help you cope with it and stay where you are,'" Ryan said. "That is not what this country is. We have to change that approach."

Reaching out

Ryan's visit comes after Heather Reynolds, president and CEO of Catholic Charities Fort Worth, testified before Congress and published an open letter to him.

In that message, Reynolds said she had first hoped to change the speaker's worldview on poverty, and then she read articles that "Paul Ryan says he was wrong about poverty."

"It turned everything I knew about politics upside down," she wrote. "Speaker Ryan, you described what I know about the poor. I can hold strong to my business mindset all while carrying out my moral Catholic responsibility of taking care of the least among us. This flexibility, this nimbleness of thought, this grand compassion and understanding is the linchpin needed to reframe how the nation views those in poverty."

Statistics show that around 15 percent of families in Fort Worth live in poverty, earning less than $15,000 a year.

Tuesday morning, Ryan talked to some clients and saw how they were helped by Catholic Charities.

He said he's glad he saw the program in person.

"They are talking the talk and walking the walk in Fort Worth," he said.

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley
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