On Monday, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan gave a brief address on poverty and economic mobility at the Brookings Institute. His goal? To present the GOP as a party committed to alleviating party. And he gestured toward ideas—straightforward cash payments and an end to means-testing—that would sit well with liberals.
But his rhetoric revealed the extent to which this concern for poverty is still bound by the right-wing, anti-government ideology that drove his budget blueprints, and continue to dominate the Republican Party.
To wit, during the question and answer session, Ryan chose to distance himself from the phrase “compassionate conservatism.” “I don’t like that term or the premise of it,” said Ryan, “Since it presumes that conservatism itself isn’t compassionate. I believe conservatism, or what I call classical liberalism, is the most compassionate form of government because it respects the individual.”
Ryan wants to present this as a kind of reform conservatism, but it’s too similar to what he’s offered before, and what we’ve seen from Republicans in the past. Indeed, like many of his predecessors, he sees existing anti-poverty programs as ineffective—despite evidence to the contrary—and the War on Poverty as a failure. “Just as government can increase opportunity, government can destroy it as well. And perhaps, there’s no better example of how government can miss the mark is LBJ’s War on Poverty.”
Why has the government missed the mark? Because it doesn’t understand that poverty is “isolation” from civil society as well as “deprivation.” To bring the poor back to their communities, Ryan wants to eliminate the “hodgepodge” of existing programs and craft a “simpler” system that provides straightforward cash transfers. He doesn’t offer any detail, but when you consider these critiques in the broader context of the GOP, it’s clear what he means: “Reforms” that would reduce spending and redirect what’s left to smaller, state-controlled programs that would be at risk of additional cuts.
Indeed, what Ryan has offered is a more attractive version of the GOP’s long-standing narrative on poverty: That it has as much to do with individual choices as it does anything else, and facilitating better choices—though marriage promotion, job training, and other programs that enhance civil society—is the core job for government.
This gets to a core divide that makes poverty a tough topic for liberals and conservatives. The former see poverty as the product of structural economic and social forces that create certain incentives and shape individual behavior. People can make bad choices, yes, but they play out differently depending on where you stand in the structure. A lazy, irresponsible rich kid can still become a stable professional, a lazy, irresponsible poor kid might find himself in jail.
Conservatives, on the other hand, are less likely to acknowledge the role of environment, and more likely to focus on choices. Yes, you can be trapped in poverty by circumstances beyond your control, but if you make the right decisions—get educated, get married, have kids—then you’re likely to escape, or at least create the conditions for your children to escape.
Speaking as a liberal, there seems to be a real limit to what the Wisconsin congressman—or any Republican—can do. An anti-poverty agenda that focuses on individual behavior and individual communities is one that can’t accommodate the fact of systemic discrimination and deep racial inequality—two realities that shape the physical and human geography of poverty.
In other words, while I think Ryan is sincere about wanting to alleviate poverty, but he’s bound by an ideology—and a party—that doesn’t want to acknowledge the role that structure plays in all of this, and remains committed to a vision of government that isn’t equipped to deal with those kind of problems.