Cynthia M. Allen

Paul Ryan seeks to change how we talk and what we do about poverty

Paul Ryan proposes an overhaul of the nation's poverty programs at a June 7 event in Anacostia, Washington, D.C.
Paul Ryan proposes an overhaul of the nation's poverty programs at a June 7 event in Anacostia, Washington, D.C. AP

Unbeknownst to many Americans, House Speaker Paul Ryan is on a mission.

In late 2012, the Wisconsin congressman began traveling the country on a “listening and learning tour” in an effort to gain a better understanding of poverty in America.

He visited with struggling families, felons, addicts and disabled people whose situations have kept them in a cycle of hopelessness.

With the help of civil rights-era leader and community activist Robert L. Woodson, he met with faith-based and community leaders around the country who, through grassroots efforts that target the most devastated communities, are having great success at transforming lives and helping people overcome their circumstances.

The meetings even inspired a series of short documentary films titled Comeback, following the stories of Americans who are breaking the cycle of poverty.

Indeed, it seems Ryan’s perspective has been transformed.

He threw his support behind an expanded earned income tax credit for low-wage workers.

In 2014, after Ryan began softening his rhetoric about how best to fight poverty, John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, told The Washington Post that Ryan’s experiences appear to have made him “less partisan and more knowledgeable.”

And in an open letter dated May 3, Heather Reynolds, president and CEO of Catholic Charities Fort Worth, thanked the speaker for “listening and learning,” and expressed hope that his “newfound understanding of poverty can be telegraphed to every elected official and every administrator in Washington.”

That, perhaps, is Ryan’s biggest challenge.

As former Education Secretary Bill Bennett once said: “When liberals look at the poor, they see a sea of victims. When conservatives look at the poor, they see a sea of aliens.”

These incongruous attitudes about the poor and how to assist them have made the American welfare state a flash point in contemporary politics.

They’ve likely also exacerbated the hodgepodge of programs that, while intended to help Americans in need, have been not just largely ineffectual but potentially harmful.

More than five decades after President Lyndon Johnson launched his War on Poverty, some measures indicate the percentage of Americans living in poverty has not been reduced.

That’s at least partly the result of devastating demographic shifts — including the skyrocketing number of unwed mothers, fatherless children and young men who are incarcerated or unemployed and detached from the workforce — that experts on both sides of the aisle agree have intensified the failed welfare state.

In addition to taking flak from liberals who consider themselves the champions of the poor, Ryan also has to convince his own caucus why raising these issues to the forefront of his party’s agenda is crucial to its future and the future of the nation.

He began that effort in early June by releasing a report from a task force of congressional Republicans on how to tackle poverty.

The report lays out broad recommendations that offer a principled starting point for future discussions, including strengthening government-funded employment support programs that make low wages go further and emphasizing the need to carefully evaluate programs, expanding those that deliver results and phasing out those that are ineffective.

Indeed, in a presidential election year, it’s a safe bet that little will get passed by Congress.

But Ryan’s emphasis on his new anti-poverty agenda — the first policy focus of his “Better GOP” effort — signifies he means to make a positive shift in the party’s direction, even if that means talking about an issue that has not traditionally animated his constituency.

That’s leadership, and it’s the direction the party needs to take — rather than the Trumpian way of division and resentment.

Ryan is a man on a mission, and it will serve the country best if both conservatives and liberals agree to join him.

Cynthia M. Allen: 817-390-7166, cmallen-

@star-telegram.com, @cjmallen12

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