bleeding hearts

Means and ends.

The current debate on poverty is one not of ends, but of means. Or at least, it should be. Paul Ryan has given the party a good nudge in that direction. Allow me to explain.

Is the present-day conservative, with her healthy and traditionally American distrust of government really a mouthpiece of the richest 1% who have cynically hijacked the conservative movement to further enrich themselves?

Is the desire to help our fellow man who has fallen on hard times incompatible with principles of limited government?

Do Republicans really hate the poor?

If you listened to many of the voices on the political left these days, you probably would answer in the affirmative to these questions. It is all a matter of winning political points (which I admit, is part of the game for players on both teams), but it obfuscates the larger truth.

Paul Ryan makes his contribution to the conversation in his recent book. The book is half political autobiography and half policy paper with the final chapters addressing the poverty debate. It is in these latter chapters that Rep. Ryan breaks out of the standard Republican campaign biography fare. His proposals may startle many who have accepted the left-wing invective as fact.

Paul starts this part of the book out by quoting President Obama’s 2008 speech to the NAACP:

“That’s why if we’re serious about reclaiming that dream, we haveto do more in our own lives, our own families, and our own communities. That starts with providing the guidance our children need, turning off the TV, and putting away the video games; attending those parent-teacher conferences, helping our children with their homework, and setting a good example. It starts with teaching our daughters to never allow images on television to tell them what theyare worth; and teaching our sons to treat women with respect, and torealize that responsibility does not end at conception; that what makes them men is not the ability to have a child but the courage toraise one. It starts by being good neighbors and good citizens who arewilling to volunteer in our communities — and to help our synagogues and churches and community centers feed the hungry and care for the elderly. We all have to do our part to lift up this country. That’s where change begins.”

Obviously, many people on both sides of the argument agree that it starts with culture. The social mores impressed on young people by parents, teachers, coaches, pastors, etc., combined with the formative experiences in life inculcate the virtues in individuals (responsibility, community, family, hard work, self-reliance) that are essential for helping the individual escape poverty.

He then goes on to describe a series of meetings he has had with community leaders throughout his career who work to help people out of poverty. The reader meets people like Freddie Garcia, who kicked his heroin habit and went on to start a program called Outcry in the Barrio which helps young men in and around San Antonio, Texas kick their habit, find jobs, and rebuild their lives.

These various forms of civil society, the “middle ground between the individual and the government” where churches, families, teachers and coaches all work together to help the individual overcome the challenges she might face are the primary factors in preventing poverty. But as government has expanded its role in preventing poverty, it has slowly crowded out elements of civil society that used to be important safeguards against the kind of hard poverty we see in many parts of our country today.

“The formal and informal connections that make up our civil society have historically been a source of nation’s prosperity and strength.”

It is this decline of the prominence of civil society, described by Robert Putnam in his watershed book, “Bowling Alone” that plays a role in the decline in the quality of schools, economic prosperity, and democracy. But the true danger to civil society arises when the government starts to take on the functions that civil society used to fill:

“…government tends to crowd out the good work that only people freely associating and gathering in their community can do… this is an unintended consequence of well-intentioned liberal progressive policies…”

Instead of expanding the sorts of big-government transfer programs that have limited efficacy and erode the very institutions that make our country strong, it is important to put power in the hands of our local community leaders. It is government’s job to create an environment in which people are free to do what they do, as opposed to doing their work for them. Indeed, when government takes over these roles, the care and trust that is important for communities to thrive is replaced by impersonal and inefficient bureaucracy.

While I disagree with any blanket condemnation of “big government” as such, there is veracity to his argument: our government must look at ways in which it can create an environment for volunteer organizations and religious institutions to do the work they are best at: giving people a reason to escape poverty.

However, Rep. Ryan explains, there is another part of the picture: federal government programs do play a necessary part in helping people out of poverty. But there are systemic flaws with the system as it is now: the bureaucracy is outdated and inefficient. Gridlock in Washington has left these programs largely unchanged since they were first conceived decades ago. Means testing causes the poor to experience extremely high marginal tax rates, destroying incentives for upward mobility. People who are not necessarily in need can qualify for benefits. The overall goal of helping people out of poverty is lost as recipients are tossed around from program to program, receiving a random assortment of benefits while missing out on incentives to join the workforce in long term, meaningful work.

Rep. Ryan calls for each recipient to be assigned a case worker who helps him or her to navigate the bureacracy to receive all benefits he or she is qualified for. But more importantly, the case worker would design a plan for the recipient that would end up with that recipient experiencing sustainable employment. The plan would be flexible in that it would be structured as a grant to each state individually — allowing for each unique situation to be handled according to conditions on the ground. States would submit a plan to the federal government that suits the unique conditions that the poor in each state face. Once approved, the federal government would provide the funds needed to carry out that plan. This devolves power over the program closer to the people who are affected most.

I’d like to here emphasize the word plan. In addition to the state by state plan, there must be a plan for each individual recipient of aid so that no one gets lost in the mix, perpetually stuck in a system that fails to provide incentives to rise above the indignity of dependence. Teach a man to fish…

Obviously, the sheer complexity of overhauling our anti-poverty apparatus is outside my expertise and the scope of this article. This is, after all, just a book review. I’d like to point out here that the remarkable thing about Rep. Ryan’s book is his emphasis. There is little doubt that the rise of the liberal, capitalist world order has been astonishingly effective at helping people out of poverty. But there is much work to be done, and the Republican party has a future in owning this issue. Rather than standing only in opposition to anti-poverty programs, arguing for spending cuts and reducing spending on anti-poverty programs solely for the purpose of freeing up money for tax cuts, Republicans need to make a good faith effort to provide new alternatives for reaching the same end. In a word, Republicans need to overtly state that they’re on board with helping to end poverty.

Rep. Ryan has made an important first step towards starting a conversation within the party on how to provide a different means to the same end. Providing new solutions would be a huge step forward for the GOP and the country as a whole.

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