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I’m Margaret Hoover, and welcome to ‘Firing Line.’
The speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, is here for a conversation about fighting poverty and the conservative movement.
‘Firing Line with Margaret Hoover’ is made possible by… Corporate funding is provided by…
Welcome to ‘Firing Line,’ our inaugural program that aims to renew the tradition of William F. Buckley’s ‘Firing Line’ for a new generation.
For longtime admirers of the program, rest assured.
I will honor the uncommonly high standards that Buckley set in his conversations, and like Buckley, I will never compromise content for cleverness.
And for our younger viewers, feel free to tweet that.
And speaking of tweet-able characters, let’s talk about the man leading 435 of them in the House of Representatives today, Speaker Paul Ryan.
Fifty-two years ago, the very first recorded episode of ‘Firing Line’ explored the federal government’s poverty agenda, an issue that has become a passion project for Speaker Ryan.
While the results of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty are more nuanced than any political talking point, both conservative and liberal policy makers, including the speaker, point to the near-constant poverty rate as proof that the war has resulted in stalemate, but what has changed since ‘Firing Line’s’ inception is the broad acceptance amongst conservatives that the federal government should have a continuing role in poverty alleviation.
The abolition of anti-poverty programs is not the goal of any serious conservative, which is not to say there aren’t plenty of people perpetuating a myth of a young Paul Ryan by day, a proud member of the College Republicans, and by night, a libertarian Babadook dreaming of abolishing Social Security while doing keg stands.
[ Laughs ]
And entertaining and as very helpful as those stories might be for motivating the bases of both parties, the truth about the speaker is this — he is deeply invested in discovering exactly how the federal government’s resources should be best deployed to help those who need them most.
As a protégé of Jack Kemp, he’s concerned himself with finding solutions that help lift people out of poverty.
No stranger to hard work and opportunity, the speaker once drove an Oscar Mayer Wienermobile to help pay for college.
The congressman from Janesville, Wisconsin, has served as chairman of the House Budget and the House Ways and Means Committees, a Republican vice-presidential nominee, and speaker of the House of Representatives, all of which sidelined a potential career as a fitness model.
[ Laughs ]
And depending on who you ask, Washington, D.C., is a swamp because of people like my guest, or it can only be cleaned up by people like my guest.
And in either case, there can be no doubt that Speaker Ryan will leave the conservative movement upon his retirement later this year in a very different composition than when he joined it.
Today, I welcome Speaker Ryan to a discussion not of his origin story but of his legacy, anti-poverty programs, the state of poverty in America and the American conservative movement as he enters his final days in Washington.
Speaker Ryan, welcome to ‘Firing Line.’
Thank you for being my first guest.
Margaret, it’s great to be here.
What an honor.
Picking up where Bill Buckley left off, an absolute honor.
This has been, what, not since 1999?
He ran for 33 years.
And the thing that Bill Buckley did…
…was do a deep dive on a certain policy issue with a serious guest who’d become an expert in it.
And you have taken up poverty as your mantle, but there is a history of people believing that conservatives don’t care about the success of anti-poverty programs, and I just want to start by playing a clip from that very first ‘Firing Line’ where Michael Harrington and Bill Buckley are discussing anti-poverty programs.
But for those of us who believe that history shows that the most successful assault on poverty has precisely been conducted in this country, there are those who are concerned at the increasing centralization of all of these functions in the hands of the government, and who also wonder whether or not some of you liberals oughtn’t to concern yourselves a little bit more with the aridity of the society that you are constructing.
You want me to concern myself with the things, intimate, alienation psychological aspects.
I don’t have that idea of the range of government.
I’m more for limited government.
No, I wasn’t…
…suggesting this was the government’s role at all.
I believe that we can… In this society, we have the resources and the political and social techniques to do away with meals which are not nutritional enough, to do away with miserable housing, so forth.
That I know we can do.
That we can make man happy, I’m not about to guarantee at all.
I think man has to make himself happy.
Speaker Ryan, do you think conservatives care about anti-poverty programs at the federal level?
Yes, I do, honestly.
But William F. Buckley didn’t.
He was not interested in their success.
He actually was not invested in their success at all.
He had a lot of doubt that those programs would work.
This was how many years ago?
This is the beginning of the War on Poverty.
At the 50th anniversary on the War on Poverty, which was a few years ago when I was chairman of the Budget Committee, as you mentioned, we decided to do a deep dive on federal poverty programs 50 years after and see if they really won the War on Poverty, made a difference.
Fast forward, we learned that it was a stalemate, trillions of dollars spent, effectively the same poverty rates, so the question isn’t ‘Is there a role for the federal government in alleviating poverty?’
We’ve all come to the conclusion that there is a role.
The question is ‘What’s the most effective way to do it, and how do you stop displacing local solutions that are actually really effective at fighting poverty?
How do you go from an input-based approach to an outcome-based approach, a results-based approach?’
And that’s where conservatives are now in this issue.
Okay, and yet you’ve still had challenges persuading people that your interest in anti-poverty…
…programs is sincere.
You know why I think that is?
Because for 50 years, people, mostly on the left, have defined success in the War on Poverty based on, how much money are you throwing at a problem, how many programs are you creating, how many people are on the federal programs, not defining success in the War on Poverty based on results.
Are there fewer people in poverty?
I mean, what ought to happen, if we’re successful, is fewer and fewer and fewer people are using the programs because they’re not poor anymore, and that is how we think success ought to be defined, and so I think the metrics have been distorted for a long time, and now we finally can get to a conversation where what works is what we ought to do.
Numbers and metrics are always the way to get to the American people’s heart, aren’t they?
This is part of our communication problem.
…actually, what I want to do is, I want to actually start with what happened to you in the 2012 campaign because you had a… Sort of you’re running as the vice-presidential nominee for Mitt Romney, and you were at the Rock County 4-H Fair in Janesville and had a ‘Paul on the road to Damascus’ conversion moment.
…I had made a mistake earlier in my career where I used this refrain of ‘Makers versus takers,’ where, you know, a think tank put out this number about how many people were contributing in taxes, and how many people were consuming in tax dollars, and I made a very… It was the wrong thing to do.
A guy came up to me and said, ‘Well, which one am I?
Am I a maker, or am I taker?
You know, I served my country.
You know, I use these benefits.
Does that mean I’m not a producer to society?
I’m now a blight?’
And it really struck me that this man’s criticism was totally warranted and that I had gotten it wrong…
Or that it felt in some way like it was a judgment on him…
That’s exactly right.
…for accepting federal assistance.
That’s my point, so what I was trying to get at, but I did not do it very well, and I was very clumsy about it, was we want to have a situation where we have upward mobility in society, and everybody… The safety net catches them and then helps them get back on their feet and doesn’t trap them into lives of poverty, and I was very clumsy in how I described it to the point where this person said, ‘Are you saying that if I get a government benefit,’ you know, a farmer getting a program payment, a veteran getting a veteran’s benefit, ‘That I’m all of a sudden a taker?’
You know, and I realized, ‘Oh, my gosh. I just completely isolated, marginalized so many people that we do not intend to marginalize.’
And so it gave me a lot to think about, and I spent the next number of years touring the country and going to poor communities and learning from poverty fighters themselves about what success looks like and how we can achieve lasting success in the ‘War on Poverty.’
Looking back on the War on Poverty now, what wins can conservatives claim in the War on Poverty?
I think the best, biggest win was the 1996 welfare reform when we reformed TANF.
It used to be called the AFDC, and child-poverty rates dropped precipitously, double digits, and…
Also single-mother poverty rates.
…single-mother poverty rates really improved, and single moms got jobs and careers, and so that really worked, and what it did was, it had time limits and work requirements, but it also allowed for customization at the local level to alleviate problems, and it was the lesson that we learned, which was, in the War on Poverty, it was basically, ‘Go Washington. Go big.
Go bureaucracy. Go regulations,’ and I think it gave this mistaken impression on Americans, on taxpayers — ‘Poverty, that’s government’s problem.
You don’t worry about it.
Just pay your taxes, and government will solve this problem,’ and what we ended up doing, we marginalized the poor.
I mean, we literally put people in warehouses like Cabrini-Green away from jobs, away from the rest of society, and the War on Poverty, as well intended as it was, ended up marginalizing the poor, and it eroded those mediating institutions, those beautiful civil-society groups, Catholic Charities, Salvation Army, Lutheran Social Services, America Works, that were really making a big difference.
Well, because… Isn’t what it does is, it says, ‘We’ve got it covered’?
‘We’ve got it covered.’
You’re paying your taxes.
‘Pay your taxes.
Don’t worry about it.’
We want to break up the poverty monopoly, and what I mean when I say that is monopolies are bad, whether it’s a private-sector monopoly or a government-sector monopoly because monopoly… There’s no choice.
There’s no competition.
And so what we want to do is have the poverty-fighting agenda be demonopolized and then have people with choices so that the poor are customers, not clients.
The poor are customers so that we want to have a welfare-service agency, not just the county welfare-service agency that’s stamping a book and pushing people through a system, but various different poverty-solution-oriented groups, Catholic Charities, Lutheran Services, like I said, so that they compete for getting people out of poverty.
Casework management is the model that, say, Catholic Charities uses.
Lots of different groups use it, so you assign a caseworker to a person and a family.
They help fix the problems that they have and give them a path out of poverty, hold them accountable to it, and you have carrots and sticks.
You have time limits or work requirements, but you also have the resources that are flexible enough to cater to a person’s specific problems to get them the soft skills, the hard skills they need to get on the path of life, and then you measure success based upon whether it works or not.
We have only had an input-driven system.
We want a results-driven system, and the groups that succeed at getting the most people out of poverty, they’re the ones that should keep providing the services, so you have a competition for results is what we want to do when we want to break up this monopoly.
Two things, one thing about that competition is, there are still people who are very threatened by it because they think that if you’re going to take it away from the federal government, it’s just a means for dismantling it entirely.
Yeah, so this is not… We’re not saying, ‘Cut spending.’
We’re not saying, ‘Get rid of the federal government’s effort.’
The federal government should not be the front line.
You’re not trying to cut spending at all on poverty?
The federal government should be the supply lines.
People should hear that.
Really, Paul Ryan, deficit hawk, is not trying to cut a dime from poverty programs?
We’ll save money in the back end when people are out of poverty.
That’s where the money will be saved, so what we’re saying is, this is like our food-stamp reforms that we’re pushing right now, where this is not about a big money-saving exercise.
This is about saving souls, not dollars, so the federal government should mind its supply lines, provide resources, but they shouldn’t micromanage the front lines in fighting poverty.
The people in the groups and on the grounds, eye to eye, soul to soul, person to person, they’re the ones best equipped to actually solve these problems and help people, and that’s why we want society to get re-engaged in getting involved in these groups and mediating institutions to help solve these problems, and then now in the 21st century, we have a bill that does this.
We can actually measure success very accurately and measure it based on results and outcomes, not on input and dollars.
The radical transparency of…
And there are other things that we’ve already done that are in law just this year that we believe will bring people into fighting poverty, that will…
Tell me about some of them.
So when I was a young Jack Kemp guy, we were fighting for something called enterprise zones.
We now have Opportunity zones in law.
It was part of our tax law.
It’s something that I worked on with Tim Scott, a senator from South Carolina.
Tim and I showcased this idea a couple years ago at a poverty assembly we did with the Kemp Forum in Columbia, South Carolina.
Opportunity zones are now law of the land.
What that means is, 25 percent of the poorest census tracts in America are now eligible for an opportunity zone.
A person can sell an asset, not pay capital gains on it.
We call them like-kind exchanges.
It’s a tax term.
Invest that money into an opportunity zone.
If they keep it there for 10 years, that investment, in these poorer areas, they don’t pay capital-gains taxes on it, so what this means is, there’s about $6 trillion of untapped wealth, of unrealized capital gains, that now can be directed into the poorest communities of America to bring back jobs, to bring education, to bring revitalization into these neighborhoods.
We also had something called social-impact bonds, which is, we want to have a social good that we want to focus on.
We can bring private capital to it, float a bond to finance, fixing these social problems in these poor communities, and if it works, the bond pays off.
If it doesn’t, it doesn’t, so it’s all evidence-based policy making, two great private-sector ideas to focus on getting people in the private sector in our communities on fixing problems in poor communities.
It’s remarkable you point this out for two reasons.
One, in the very first ‘Firing Line’ that Will Buckley did on poverty, one of his criticisms was, ‘Why aren’t there partnerships with private enterprise?’
That’s what this is all about.
Right, but then the second piece of this, and I wonder if you could sort of put a personal patina on this because you referenced, ‘Oh, this was a Jack Kemp idea.’
But the truth is, you came to Washington more than 25 years ago.
I worked on this idea for 25 years.
You worked on this idea with Jack Kemp, and at the end of your career now, you’re seeing the culmination of those efforts, that it takes a long time to come up with good policies, and it takes a long time to get the policies put into action.
So can you reflect on…
Yeah, that’s a good…
…sort of that personal…
That’s a really good point.
This particular idea, which conservatives who believe in fighting poverty have always believed, is the best way to get capital into capital-starved neighborhoods, to get people, not government, but people into helping other people.
This has been our primary idea.
It’s taken us…me 25 years.
I worked on this 5 years as a staff guy, 20 years as a member of Congress.
And as speaker of the House, you finally get it done.
As speaker of the House, I was able to get it in the tax bill with some partners, like Tim Scott and a guy named Pat Tiberi, so we put this in the tax law.
This became law in December of 2017.
Governors had to submit their census tracts in April to the Treasury Department, which are now being designated, so we’re going to have these opportunity zones all around America, and so, yeah, it took 25 years to get this idea into law.
We’re very excited about it because we think it’s going to be a big game changer in fighting poverty.
There’s one other piece of your poverty agenda that, as far as I can tell, will probably be the last piece that you’ll be able to get done before you leave the speakership, which is, within the reauthorization of the farm bill, there’s an element that deals with food stamps.
And there’s an entire reorganization that’s gone into reorganizing food stamps this time, which makes it quite different than the previous reauthorizations of the farm bill.
It’s the work requirement.
Can we talk about that work requirement?
And, yeah, go ahead.
…we had two pilot projects to prove this idea, one in Maine and one in Kansas, which says if you introduce a work requirement for an able-bodied adult on food stamps that doesn’t have small kids, so we’re talking about people from the ages of 18 to 59.
There are 12 million who are not working, who are not looking for work, who are not in school, so their skills are atrophying.
They’re on the sidelines.
We want to pull them into the workforce.
We’ve got over six million jobs available right now in America that are going unfilled, so it’s a perfect time in this kind of an economy with a low unemployment rate, with the lowest jobless rate in 48 years, to get people out of poverty into the workforce, and what we’re saying is, you have to put 20 hours of work in a week or 20 hours of going to school or serving in a community like a charity, and if you want to go to school, your costs will be covered.
So this is, again, not about saving money.
It’s about saving lives.
It says, ‘If you’re an able-bodied person, you don’t have small kids, you have to put 20 hours in of work.
You have to go to work or go to school, and your costs of school will be covered,’ because we believe this is how you pull people off the sidelines into poverty, and what we’ve learned is that when you introduce a work requirement like that, it actually works.
So there’s a couple things about it.
I mean, it does poll relatively well with the American people.
When you look at the Kaiser Family Foundation, most people are in favor of, you know, if you’re going to be getting…
Right, that you should be doing, but one of the criticisms of the work requirement is that there hasn’t been the funding on the back end to ensure that people who do want to try to get a job know how to…
…go to training or know how to get that kind of educational training and benefits of it.
I mean, I looked at this bill.
You have increased the funding for that component of it…
There is a billion dollars…
…allocated to that element of it, which is not the deficit hawk Paul Ryan…
No, it isn’t.
…that I used to knew.
Because I think, at the end of the day, a person who will go from food stamps to school into a career and to be able to support themselves and have a family and live a great life and meets their potential, that person will not be consuming these benefits, and we’ll save money at the back end, but more importantly, what’s more important than saving money is a person will reach their potential.
The American ideal will be revitalized.
The condition of your birth doesn’t determine the outcome of your life in this country.
A lot of people don’t think that’s true for them anymore.
A lot of people are multigenerational poverty.
We want to break the cycle of that.
We want to get people onto a life that they want, onto the ladder of life, and we really believe that this kind of tool does that, and we tried it, and it’s worked.
So that’s why we’re pushing this.
So there’s one other criticism of the work requirement, and I want to ask you about it because it’s something that’s plagued Republicans for decades now, right, because when you hear the term ‘work requirement,’ there are some Americans who hear a dog whistle.
There are some Americans who, in their mind, go back to 1980, and they hear Ronald Reagan campaigning against welfare queens…
…and that there is, sadly and unfortunately for conservatives, a racialized history related to the term ‘work requirement’ and what that’s about, and I wonder how you think about that and try to get around that as you sell these policies.
It obviously shouldn’t be.
This is just as big a problem in rural white America as it is in any other part of the country, so this is not that.
It really is.
If you take a look at and look at Appalachia and rural America, you’ll see this problem even more persistent.
I’m actually glad you mentioned that because I have a couple of graphs.
It may interest people to know the demographic data of people…
Right, that’s the point I’m making.
…who are on food stamps.
That’s exactly the point we’re making.
This has nothing to do with race.
It’s all about opportunity and making sure we get people from lives where they’re not getting opportunities to get people opportunity.
That’s why we’re putting so much into education.
That’s why we’re putting so much into job training.
We’re reforming career and technical-vocational education as well, so we want to make sure that local career and vocational educators are teaming up with local employers to get people the skills they need to get the careers that they can get in those communities.
You’re trying to match skills to opportunities.
But the truth is, there are still a lot of people on the sidelines in this economy…
…a huge amount, actually historically high numbers of people that are still on the sidelines.
Just the numbers we use here on food stamps, it’s 12 million people, 12 million people who are able-bodied, who do not have small children at home, who are working age, are not working, are not looking for work, are not in school.
They’re slipping through the cracks.
They’re not finding opportunity.
We want to go find them and pull them into the workforce, get them into school, help them get skills so that they can get onto a life of self-sufficiency, a better life for themselves, and by the way, the economy will greatly benefit from this as well.
We need them.
We need their talents.
When you think about these federal programs and poverty, coming down the pike is this impending sense that automation and artificial intelligence may create major upheavals in the economy, and how are we as conservatives, or how are you as a conservative thinking about how we’re going to handle those influxes in the economy?
It’s precisely what I was referring to when I said we’re going to reform the way career and vocational- technical education works, so for instance, in my part of Wisconsin where Foxconn is coming, Foxconn brings all these flat-screens.
They make all flat-screens.
They make the flat-screen on your iPhone.
We’ve got our local educator.
It’s called Gateway Technical College.
They’re going to have a Foxconn degree where they’re going to train workers how to build and train and run robots, which are a high, cutting-edge manufacturing, so those are the jobs of tomorrow, so we’re going to have our local educators work with people to get the skills they need for the jobs of tomorrow, and so that means we have to have a nimble education system that will constantly innovate with employers to make sure people get these skills so they can get these jobs of tomorrow.
And so that’s why we have to fix our education system so people can go and embrace what we call lifelong learning and get the skills so they can always have these jobs that are not being made obsolete.
You developed this poverty agenda after… You ran on it in 2016 with House Republicans.
And, you know, I think it’s safe to say that while you were running on this, Donald Trump was running on something else, and I think it’s safe to say he hadn’t even actually really thought about urban poverty in, I think, the way that you have.
The Better Way agenda versus Make America Great Again, what’s the difference?
What’s the difference?
So… Well, we merged approaches, so the Better Way agenda was our agenda, which we’re about 80 percent of the way through executing right now.
The last part of it is our workforce development, like, what we just talked about.
The president-elect, I actually met with him after he won the presidency, before he was sworn in, saying, ‘Here’s the agenda we ran on.
Here’s exactly what we want to do.’
He said, ‘I love it.
Add infrastructure to it, and let’s make it… Let’s do it.’
That’s exactly where we are, so the Make America Great agenda had a lot of overlaps, tax reform, rebuilding the military, helping the veterans and infrastructure, which he added to it, so we basically have blended our approaches, and we’ve laid out a two-year agenda, which the House has been painstakingly implementing and executing all along.
We just finished our Veterans Choice Act.
We’re passing infrastructure.
Now we’re working on closing the skills gap and the opportunity gap, which we basically merged our approaches, and that’s kind of where we are now.
You’ve talked about this conservatism, the conservatism of Jack Kemp, that inspired you, that brought you to the movement.
You’re leaving Washington in a very different time.
Who is going to carry the torch forward as you leave?
There’s a lot of good leaders, a lot of young and up-and-coming leaders who are in Congress, who are out of Congress, who are governors that are making a big difference in this area.
I believe in aspirational…
What are their names?
Can you give me some of their names?
Because here’s why.
You have…You represented this conservatism that was compassionate about poverty.
It wanted to build the base of the party.
It wanted to… cared about fiscal discipline, and in another time, it was called bleeding-heart conservatism, and I don’t know who those leaders are, what their names are, the people that are going to carry the torch after you leave.
Elise Stefanik, Brad Wenstrup, Mark Walker, I could go on.
It’s Sean Duffy.
These are just a handful of leaders in the House who care a great deal about this poverty agenda, who have been working a great deal on this agenda.
Keith Rothfus, I can just keep going on and on.
Barbara Comstock has been doing so many things in this area, so we’ve got great leaders.
In the Senate, you’ve got Tim Scott.
You got Marco Rubio.
You’ve got a lot of people in the Senate who’ve been working on these issues with us, so this was a small group of conservatives fighting for it.
Now it’s much, much broader.
I’ll grant you, it’s not getting the headlines.
It’s not pushing Stormy Daniels off the front page, but it is what we in Congress are working on.
We’re actually getting it done, and we’re making a difference, and we think it’s going to have a profound impact on people’s lives in this country.
You have said that you’re going to fund every dollar of this poverty agenda, and you have, but when you came to Washington, the deficit was 5 trillion.
The debt was 5 trillion, and as you leave, it’s 21 trillion, and now…
And you know what the answer is?
The House passed a budget every year since I was Budget chair, every session since I was Budget chair, paying off the debt, balancing the budget, but we have not been able to get these bills through the Senate onto the president’s desk, and there’s where our challenge lies.
There are many challenges, as you’ve just made clear.
Paul Ryan, thank you for joining me on the first episode of ‘Firing Line.’
Thank you, Margaret.
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