Paul Ryan and “complex problems”


December 21, 2018

Outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan Wednesday marked an end to his tenure in office much the way he began it – with smooth-sounding words on poverty and entitlement programs that, at best, sounded like simplistic platitudes and, at worst, sent up a smoke signal that conservatives won’t let go of their philosophy that the best way to help people is to be mean to them.

In his farewell address, Ryan (R-WI) acknowledged unfinished work on several “complex problems.”

On poverty, Ryan said, “I believe firmly that solving our poverty challenges once and for all will require not just a great undertaking, but a great rethinking of how we help the most vulnerable among us. It begins with realizing that the best results from within communities, where solutions are tailored and targeted for people’s needs. This battle will be won soul-to-soul and eye-to-eye.”

Sounds good, and there are thousands of dedicated people in our networks doing this work. But there also needs to be pocket-to-pocket: the federal pocket supplying supports like housing, health care, or tax credits that make it possible for the one-on-one help to succeed.

Truth is, however, the language Ryan used Wednesday is not all that different from the words he deployed in the summer of 2016 when, amid great fanfare, he released his plan for fighting poverty. Then, as now, Ryan relied on platitudes in support of his anti-poverty efforts.

“We think the way to fight poverty is to fight its symptoms,” Ryan said at the time. “We need to get to the root causes of poverty to fight the cycle of poverty.”

(One of the root causes of poverty is that workers don’t make enough money to support their families. So it probably was not helpful that Ryan opposed the $15 minimum wage that Democrats were fighting for at the time.)

Wednesday, Ryan did acknowledge limited success in fighting for his goals in the area of poverty and entitlement reform.

“I acknowledge plainly that my ambitions for entitlement reform have outpaced the political reality and I consider this our greatest unfinished business,” he said. “Ultimately, solving this problem will require a greater degree of political will than exists today. I regret that.”

Ryan is perhaps correct on one point. When it comes to realizing his vision of entitlement reform – work requirements, other bureaucratic hoops to jump through, significant cuts in funding – the political will does not exist to do what Ryan wants done.

And let us all hope it never does.