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Rep. Paul Ryan: The War on Poverty has 'failed miserably'

The War on Poverty, which President Lyndon Johnson declared nearly 50 years ago, has “failed miserably,” House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan said Thursday  -- and he wants to figure out what approaches would work to get Americans out of poverty.
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The War on Poverty, which President Lyndon Johnson declared nearly 50 years ago, has “failed miserably,” House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan said Thursday -- and he wants to figure out what approaches would work to get Americans out of poverty.

“When I look at the money spent, when I look at the programs created, when I look at the miserable outcomes and the high poverty rates, as a policy maker, (I say) ‘We can do better than this and we need to figure out how.’”

Ryan said he and his party must “launch an effort with open minds and open hearts on how best to attack the root cause of poverty” and “restore upward mobility in America.”

The Republican vice presidential candidate in 2012 and a potential GOP presidential contender in 2016, Ryan will hold a Budget Committee hearing next week to assess anti-poverty programs.

“Next year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the War on Poverty. We’ve spent approximately $15 trillion and the question we ought to be asking ourselves is, ‘where are we?’ With a 15 percent poverty rate today -- the highest in a generation -- and with 46 million people in poverty, I would argue it’s not working very well.”

He said, “We shouldn’t be measuring our success in the war on poverty by inputs, by how much money we throw at programs, by how many people we enroll in programs; we ought to be measuring success in the War on Poverty by measuring how many people we get out of poverty…..” 

Ryan’s attention to the issue carries extra weight because it was his running mate Mitt Romney who seemed to be writing off low-income voters last year with his comment that “47 percent who are with him (Obama), who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them.” Those people, Romney said, “will vote for this president no matter what.”

Asked what is his party’s anti-poverty plan is, Ryan told NBC News: “I don’t think we have a full-fledged agenda yet, because we need to do more listening to people who in the trenches fighting poverty. This is why I’ve been going around the country in the inner cities, with the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, listening to people who are actually achieving self-sufficiency…. who are coming out of jail, dropping their addictions, making sure they are raising their families, getting jobs….”

Recent data show the importance of jobs. According to the most recent annual Census report on poverty, in 2011 the poverty rate for those who worked full time, year round was only 2.8 percent, but the poverty rate for those working less than full time, year round was 16.3 percent.

And among those who didn’t work at least one week in the year, the poverty rate was 32.9 percent.

He dismisses Obama's economic speeches

Ryan did not specifically address the connection between the financial crisis and the subsequent recession – and the growing poverty rate since 2007.

But the non-partisan Congressional Research Service said, “The increase in poverty over the past four years reflects the effects of the economic recession that began in December 2007. Some analysts expect poverty to remain above pre-recessionary levels for as long as a decade, and perhaps longer, given the depth of the recession and slow pace of economic recovery.”

Ryan meantime dismissed Obama’s economic policy speeches delivered in Illinois and Missouri on Wednesday.

“I don’t think I heard a single new thing in these speeches…. He is pushing the same old ideas that have proven to fail. He’s pushing polarization, he’s pushing big government regulation and taxes and spending that actually make it harder to create jobs and make it harder for people to get jobs and get out of poverty,” the Wisconsin Republican said.

He has sketched out an ambitious plan in his Fiscal Year 2014 budget blueprint to convert the federal share of Medicaid spending into an allotment for each state designed to meet that state’s needs, indexed for inflation and population growth.

While Ryan said that safety net programs must remain in place for those who are utterly incapable of work, he supports broadening and making more rigorous the work or job-training requirement for recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly named the Food Stamp program). to work, to look for work, or to be in a vocational training program. “I think it’s insensitive to not have a work requirement for food stamps, and what I mean when I say that is: our goal in these programs is not to make poverty easier to handle and tolerate and live with, our goal in these program ought to be to give people a temporary hand so that they can get out of poverty.”

As Ryan said, just as poverty persists so do the federal programs that remedy poverty or least try to help people survive it. Federal anti-poverty spending this year includes:

  • $288 billion on Medicaid that pays for health care for low-income people
  • $80 billion on refundable tax credits and cash payments that are income-tested and targeted to the poor
  • $82 billion on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

Total federal mean-tested programs going to low-income people amount to $590 billion this year. Such means-tested spending will grow an annual rate of 6.2 percent over the period 2014 to 2023, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Means-tested spending is roughly a third of the size of non-means-tested entitlement spending which includes Medicare.

There’s no doubt that the most enduring legacy of Johnson’s famous 1964 war on poverty speech was Medicare, which has proven to be hugely successful in reducing poverty among those over age 65. The poverty rate among those aged 65 and older dropped from nearly 30 percent in 1967 to 8.7 percent in 2011.

Ryan’s new focus on poverty comes against the background of efforts since Johnson to reduce poverty, an effort that has spurred a wide range of policy innovations:

  • LBJ launched the Title I aid to education program, and other War on Poverty programs.
  • The next national policy maker to address poverty in an ambitious way was Ryan’s mentor, Rep. Jack Kemp from the declining industrial city of Buffalo, N.Y. As a member of Congress and as housing secretary for President George H.W. Bush, Kemp championed income tax cuts to spur job creation, tax-free “urban enterprise zones” in distressed big-city neighborhoods, and conversion of public housing from rental to ownership status, contending that when people owned their own homes they’d take better care of them and of their neighborhood.
  • President Bill Clinton signed a historic bipartisan welfare reform bill into law in 1996, building in part on ideas tested by Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin.
  • Clinton’s successor George W. Bush signed into law the first federal school voucher program in 2004 in an effort to help low-income families trapped in dysfunctional public schools – another idea pioneered by Thompson in Wisconsin. Bush also pushed federal aid going to faith-based anti-poverty efforts and the No Child Left Behind education reform law.
  • Obama has relied largely on tax credits such as the Making Work Pay credit and on direct federal spending as part of the $830 billion stimulus.

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