House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., will shift this week from his years-long focus on cutting federal spending to an anti-poverty proposal that seeks to overhaul the safety net but also leave in place existing levels of funding.
The proposal, which will be announced Thursday amid a battery of new ideas from Ryan, is part of an effort to reorient the Republican Party away from battles of recent years and toward addressing the economic anxieties of the most disadvantaged Americans.
The new proposal, called an “Opportunity Grant,” would begin on a pilot basis. It would consolidate a range of safety-net programs – including food stamps and housing vouchers – into a single grant offered to states. State governments, working with local officials and nonprofit and faith groups, would then distribute the money, with strict accountability standards. Medicaid, the health program for the poor, would not be included.
“This proposal seeks to combine the resources of the federal government with the vast knowledge of states and local communities,” according to a Ryan document obtained by The Washington Post. “By offering a more dynamic form of aid, the federal government can create a safety net that both catches the falling and supports the striving.”
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The idea of “block-granting” federal money to states has long been a linchpin of conservative thinking on fighting poverty. Although it has also long been used as a way to cut spending, Ryan’s proposal would keep safety-net expenditures the same as they would be under current law.
“It is important to note that this is not a budget-cutting exercise – this is a reform proposal,” the Ryan document says.
As budget chairman, Ryan has made a name for himself as an advocate for sharp spending cuts as part of an effort to balance the books.
“Democrats welcome any ideas that lift more Americans out of poverty and create pathways into the middle class – but we will oppose any plan that uses the sunny language of ‘reform' as a guise to cut vital safety-net programs,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Budget Committee, who questioned how Ryan could reconcile his anti-poverty plan with a budget that deeply slices safety-net programs. “Is he walking away from his own budget plan?”
Ryan has spent the past few years visiting with low-income groups and promising a new vision of Republican economic thinking – but one that had been short on policy specifics.
The plan echoes a debate within the Republican Party over how to better serve the poor and middle class – and win elections. Ryan, the 2012 GOP vice presidential pick, has since bemoaned Republicans’ difficulties in connecting with less-affluent voters.
On Thursday, Ryan, speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, is planning to back an expansion of a tax credit for childless low-income workers that President Barack Obama has also proposed. But while Obama suggests paying for it through new taxes on people in the financial industry, Ryan suggests cutting energy subsidies and other programs.
He will also support changes in education policy, seeking to consolidate programs, and back efforts among other Republicans to reform the criminal justice system so that fewer low-risk offenders return to prison. He'll also take aim at regulations.
The moves position Ryan as a leading contender in the 2016 presidential race; another potential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has been making similar proposals.