The Ryan-Trump Realignment on Poverty

The most important endorsement this past week wasn’t House Speaker Paul Ryan’s endorsement of Donald Trump, but Trump’s embrace of Ryan’s approach to fighting poverty. On CBS News’ “Face the Nation,” host John Dickerson and Trump had the following exchange:

Dickerson: Paul Ryan has now come out and endorsed you. You’ve talked to him several times. Which of his ideas — of the famous Ryan ideas — are most appealing to you?

Trump: He’s most appealing. He’s a good man. He wants good things for the country. We will agree on many things. We’re not going to agree on all things. We’ll agree on many things. I think we’ll agree on, as an example he really focuses on poverty. He wants to take people out of poverty. So do I. We’re going to come up with a plan.

In a normal campaign this wouldn’t be news. A party’s nominee for president and its top congressional leader are expected to say nice things about each other. But this isn’t a normal campaign. Many assumed Trump would have a contentious relationship with Ryan after Ryan withheld his endorsement. That didn’t happen. Trump is not only praising Ryan’s competence and character but also is promoting an agenda conventional presidential campaigns would see as competition.

On Tuesday, Ryan and the House Republicans will unveil their anti-poverty proposal at Anacostia’s House of Help, which was featured in the “Comeback” documentary series Opportunity Lives released last spring. (We’re releasing a trailer to season two of “Comeback” today.) The event will begin a six-part rollout of an agenda called “A Better Way: Our Vision for a Confident America.”

For Ryan, the poverty piece is foundational and a natural place to start a broader dialogue on how we can achieve economic mobility for all Americans. After “Comeback’s” release, Ryan described for me what he means when talking about the poor:

“[W]e should not try and define the poor as if it is some segment of society that ought to be off separate and dealt with as some separate body. The poor are us. They are our fellow citizens… The poor are America’s untapped potential.”

As Ryan argued in his radio address, the war on poverty has been a stalemate at best. We’ve been doing the same thing for 50 years without significantly improving outcomes. It’s time for a new approach.

The guardians of the status quo — the poverty industry and the professional Left — view this commonsense rhetoric as an existential threat. When the anti-poverty panel first formed, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) dismissed the effort outright saying, “Somehow, the American people are supposed to believe this group will take the lead on tackling poverty. These are just the choices you’d expect from Speaker Ryan — the primary author of the Republican roadmap to empowering special interests on the backs of poor and working families.”

Voters, on the other hand, have an open mind and are increasingly skeptical of the professional Left’s partisan demagoguery. In fact, the country is wide open for a political realignment around the question of poverty and upward mobility.

A 2011 Gallup poll found that 50 percent of people living in poverty are political independents. Another Gallup survey last year found that an all-time low number of Americans (16 percent) say they approve of the federal government’s response to poverty. Meanwhile, voters seem to view the issue of poverty through a center-right rather than a center-left lens. In 2014, more Americans viewed poverty and homelessness as an “important or extremely important” issue (67 percent) than the distribution of income and wealth (59 percent). The economy was people’s top concern (89 percent).

Even though Americans are increasingly open-minded about which party can be trusted to combat poverty, Republicans faced an insurmountable “caring deficit” in 2012. That year 81 percent of voters believed President Obama “cared about people like them.” Only 18 percent said the same of Mitt Romney.

Today, however, the GOP’s caring deficit is smaller (Trump’s populism and Ryan’s vision could be a potent combo) and the Democrats’ deficit looks more like an asset bubble. In 2016, the Left’s anti-poverty agenda is the moral equivalent of Wall Street’s repackaging of bad mortgages before the economic crisis of 2007–2008. They’ve amassed political capital based on policies that aren’t very impressive, which is why so many of them prefer demagoguery to honest debate.

Bob Woodson, the president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise featured in the “Comeback” series, described these competing visions well when he testified before Congress in 2014:

“I think it is a false dichotomy to assume that if you care for the poor, you spend more, if you do not, you spend less. I think what we must do is begin to talk about how do we invest more wisely with the purpose where we measure success of the poor by how many people are helped, as opposed to how many people are served.”

Woodson’s pupil Ryan and the House task force have preoccupied themselves with what works and helps people in the real world. Tomorrow’s event will be an important moment, and perhaps a turning point, in the war on poverty.

John Hart is the Editor-in-Chief of Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @johnhart333.

Originally published at on June 6, 2016.

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