House Speaker Paul Ryan
House Speaker Paul Ryan | Gage Skidmore, flickr, the commons

House Republicans rolling along on anti-poverty tour

A traveling crew of House Republican foot soldiers is continuing to use congressional recess time this summer on a topic for which they rarely are given public credit: Fighting poverty.
It’s all part of what House Speaker Paul Ryan calls his “A Better Way” agenda, one of the core principles of which is to disconnect the federal government from its generations-old control over anti-poverty programs.

Ryan this week highlighted the efforts of sophomore Rep. Bradley Byrne, who earlier this month toured multiple locations in his southwest Alabama district to promote an agenda that first began gathering publicity in Washington in May. On Aug. 2, Byrne toured multiple locations in Mobile and Washington counties, including an addiction recovery center and a thrift store, and held subsequent town hall talks on the topic.

“This is what we should be all about: giving people the tools they need to live instead of just giving them another government program,” Byrne said at one of his stops. “We get people a better life by moving them out of poverty.”

Byrne isn’t alone. During the Democratic National Convention in late July, GOP Rep. Tom Reed went to upstate New York, to walk through streets and schools in poverty-stricken parts of Rochester.

Rochester isn’t even part of Reed’s New York district. But he carried the same message as Byrne, describing the Better Way agenda as, “Looking at the front line, what's working, what doesn't work, and how can we change our policies going forward, because the status quo is not addressing this issue.”

The House Republican plan includes five basic elements, stressing efforts to reward work, better coordinate aid programs so they are easier to navigate, and reforms to child-welfare programs, among others.

Sending House GOP colleagues out into the country is part of a grass-roots, bottom-up strategy that Ryan has been employing since he formally unveiled the poverty plank of the platform on June 7 at a nonprofit social-services and housing provider in the low-income Washington neighborhood of Anacostia.

Critics have said the Better Way agenda lacks specifics – such as legislation to address many of the ills – and are nothing more than age-old, warmed-over Republican ideas on combatting the welfare state. For example, at the heart of many of the initiatives is a loosening of federal control over anti-poverty programs, increased work requirements for Americans receiving government benefits, better tracking of programs’ results, and more attention paid to waste and fraud.

Democrats have mocked the GOP agenda as “a new spin on a bad deal,” “nothing new but the packaging,” and “a better way to fall into poverty.”

In particular, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has blistered Ryan in a series of online articles under the heading, “Ryan Reality Check,” which it describes as a way to “bring the Speaker back down to earth” and point out that Republicans’ rhetoric doesn’t match their actions.

Specifically, for example, the DCCC says Ryan is pushing budget cuts that Democrats say would force 3.8 million Americans off of food stamp aid, disqualify tens of millions of Americans from Medicaid help, and consistently block higher minimum wage laws.

“Ryan’s poverty positioning is (all) talk and ballyhoo, because his actual record on poverty tells a completely different story,” one DCCC article reads. “Ryan, through his budget proposals, has sought to make drastic cuts to programs that working families rely on … As Speaker Ryan continues to entreat his colleagues to tackle poverty issues, we imagine his pitch goes something like this: ‘Do as I say (now), not as I do.’ ”

Ryan previewed the agenda – formalized into a 35-page document – to reporters at the Capitol in late May, as part of a six-part effort by House Republicans to seize legislative momentum on such social issues while the nation’s presidency is in flux. At one point, he acknowledged that the topic is not often seen as a traditional one for Republicans, saying at one point, “It used to be.”

At the June 7 rollout event, Ryan stood with the Anacostia agency’s leaders and a clutch of fellow House Republicans to explain his purpose.

“This is how you fight poverty. This is how you create opportunity. This is how you help people move onward and upward,” Ryan said. “We wanted to start with poverty because we think this sums up our case.”