WASHINGTON, DC — Today, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) spoke at TEDxPennsylvania Avenue about how to rethink the War on Poverty. Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery.
“Four miles from here, in a part of town called Anacostia, there’s a shelter called the House of Help, City of Hope. Years ago, the place was boarded up. And the neighborhood was a mess. Drugs, gangs, crime were everywhere. When the utility guy came to check the meter, he needed a police escort.
“But then a woman in the community took action. Her name is Shirley Holloway. And she worked with a philanthropist, a non-profit led by my friend Bob Woodson, and the District of Columbia to buy the building and turn it into the House of Help. They chased out the gangs. They cleared out the drugs. And now, the House of Help has served thousands of people struggling with addiction and homelessness. It goes to show what happens when all parts of the community work together.
“They do a lot of good work. Let me give you just one example. When I went there, I met a guy named James Woods. He told me, when he was younger, he fell in with the wrong crowd. Joined a gang . . . sold drugs. He was a tough guy—the enforcer. He got addicted, went homeless, and went to jail. When he got out, he knew he needed to change, but he didn’t know how—till he joined the House of Help. Then he went clean, found a job, got married, and turned his life around.
“The question is, why? What worked? If you asked James, he’d say one thing: Shirley Holloway. To keep him out of jail, she paid his legal fees. He promised to pay her back. But she didn’t cash his checks; she saved them. And when he got married, she turned over all the money she’d saved so he and his wife could have a nice wedding.
“Nobody had done that for him before. Nobody had put him first.
“So, a heart-warming story, right? Sure. But I’m not speaking to the heart. I’m speaking to the head. There’s a reason Shirley Holloway got through to James Woods. She had credibility. He knew he could trust her. And when she gave him advice, and taught him new skills, and held him accountable, he listened. Credibility is the key to unlocking people’s potential. Credibility is what makes the policy effective.
“And what I learned from James was, credibility doesn’t come in bulk. It’s small-scale. It’s gradual. It’s personal. And it is our ultimate weapon in the War on Poverty.
“We’ve been fighting this war for 50 years now. And I don’t think you can call it anything but a stalemate. The federal government has spent trillions of dollars on dozens of programs. And yet upward mobility is no better than before. Today, if you were raised poor, you’re just as likely to stay poor as you were 50 years ago.
“I’m not saying we haven’t made any progress. We have. But today we have a safety net that catches people falling into poverty. What we need is a safety net that lifts people out of poverty—that raises their earnings potential so they can support themselves. So, what exactly is the problem?
“The problem is our strategy. It’s the way we think about poverty. Most of us think poverty is about deprivation—or not having enough money. We treat empty wallets like potholes. Fill them up and move on. So for the past 50 years, we’ve created over 80 different programs to fill over 80 different holes in people’s budgets: health care, child care, energy, education—with almost no coordination among them.
“Here’s the catch: You qualify for these programs based on your income. If you don’t make much money, you get a lot of benefits. But as you work and make more, you start to lose benefits. And because we’ve piled these programs right on top of each other, the falloff is steep. Make a little more, and you’ll lose a ton.
“Say you’re a single mom with one kid. You’re making the minimum wage. You get food stamps, Medicaid, housing assistance, and the Earned Income Tax Credit. And then you find a job that pays $3 an hour more. When you add up all the money you’ll lose in taxes and benefit cuts, you’ll keep only 10 cents of every extra dollar you make. There’s just no reason to take that job.
“So we think we’ve been filling holes. But we’ve actually been building a trap. And that’s because poverty is about more than deprivation; it’s about isolation.
“A lot of people are cut off from the community. They don’t have the support they need to grow, whether it’s a counselor, or a teacher, or a boss. What they need is a Shirley Holloway—someone they can trust. And by discouraging work, the federal government is displacing the Shirley Holloways and isolating the poor.
“So I want to issue a call to action: to rethink the War on Poverty. We need a new battle plan—because the ultimate weapon is not the money in Washington. It’s the people in our communities—the people with credibility. They’re the ones who can break through. They’re the ones who can get results.
“Now, when I say this, people ask me, ‘Are you saying we should cut aid?’ Not at all. Last year, I put out a plan to reform the safety net that didn’t cut spending on the poor by a penny. We’d spend the same amount of money we do now—because this isn’t about saving money; it’s about saving lives.
“What I’m saying is, don’t minimize; customize. Take the money we’re spending now and direct it to homegrown solutions like the House of Help. Design aid to fit each person’s needs. And whatever you do, encourage work—because that’s how people reconnect with their community. Once they find their niche and put down roots, they draw strength from the people around them, and they grow. They’ll not only have enough money; they’ll be able to make enough money to get off assistance.
“The way I see it, the federal government is the rearguard; it should direct the supply lines. But the people in our communities—they’re the vanguard; they should fight poverty on the front lines. This role reversal is the single best change we can make.
“Now, another thing people ask me is, ‘Why do you care about this? You’re a Republican.’ I remind them, ‘Well, I’m an American too.’ We all believe in the American Idea: The condition of your birth doesn’t determine the outcome of your life. If you work hard and play by the rules, you can get ahead. If you made a mistake, you can redeem yourself.
“But a lot of people don’t think that’s true anymore. And we have to be honest with ourselves: If the American Idea is not true for everybody, then it is not true at all. So we all should care about poverty because it is a direct challenge to who we are.
“Right now, I’m working with my colleagues in Congress to fix the safety net. We’re looking at a lot of ideas, but today I want to mention just one: evidence-based policy.
“We won’t find the Shirley Holloways if we don’t look for them. And right now, the federal government has a huge blind spot. When we’re making policy, we focus on inputs, like how many programs we create or how much money we spend. What we need to do is focus on outcomes—like how many people get off welfare and find a job.
“If we did that, the debates we’d have in Washington wouldn’t be between liberals and conservatives, or between Democrats and Republicans, but between what works and what doesn’t. Those are the debates we need to have. That’s how you make progress.
“So I’ve introduced a bill with my friend Senator Patty Murray of Washington to create a commission on evidence-based policymaking. The commission would figure out how we can use data to evaluate public policy and report back to Congress. The bill is working its way through the legislative process, and all signs look good.
“Now, I know it’s easy to get discouraged in Washington. You can spend all day reading gloomy stories in the papers about our nation’s future, and start to think nothing will fix our problems. But what I’ve learned is, there are thousands of people beating poverty every day. The solutions are out there; they’re already working. We just have to support them. We just have to find them. And more often than not they’re right under our noses—like a little shelter I know just four miles from here.”