‘Break The Cycle’: Speaker Ryan Discusses Fighting Poverty on ‘Firing Line’

John Boehner

In 1966, the first episode of the original “Firing Line with William F. Buckley” explored the federal government’s War on Poverty. Now, 52 years later, Margaret Hoover and PBS are relaunching the iconic program with a conversation about that same issue with Speaker Ryan.

The conversation comes at an opportune time. Through the new tax law, states are setting up opportunity zones to bring much-needed private investment to distressed communities. The House is making progress on reforms to help more people get out of poverty and into the workforce. “We want to break the cycle,” Speaker Ryan says in the interview.

Watch the full interview here and check out excerpts below.

“Defining success based on results”

Speaker Ryan: “For 50 years, people, mostly in the left, have defined success in the war on poverty based on how much money are you throwing at a problem. How many programs are you creating? How many people are on the federal programs? Not defining success based on results. Are there fewer people in poverty? I mean what ought to happen if we are successful, is fewer and fewer and fewer people are using the program because they aren’t poor anymore, and that is how we think success ought to be defined, so I think the metrics had been distorted for a long time, and now we finally can get to a conversation where what works is what we ought to do.”

“This is about saving souls, not dollars”

Speaker Ryan: “We’ll save money in the back end when people are out of poverty. That’s where that money will be saved…this is like our food stamp reforms we are pushing right now. This is not about a big money saving exercise, this is about saving souls, not dollars. So the federal government should monitor supply lines, provide resources, but they shouldn’t micro-manage the front lines in fighting poverty. The people and the groups on the ground, eye-to-eye, soul-to-soul, person-to-person, they are the ones best equipped to solve these problems and help people. That’s why we want society to get re-engaged in…these groups and mediating institutions to help solve these problems. And then now, in the 21st century, we have a bill that does this. We can actually measure success very accurately and measure it based on results and outcomes, not on output and dollars.”

“Opportunity zones are now law of the land”

Speaker Ryan: “And there are things we have done that are in law just this year that we believe will bring people into fighting poverty…When I was a young Jack Kemp guy, we were fighting for something called enterprise zones.” We now have opportunities zones in law, part of our tax law, something that I worked on with Tim Scott, a senator from South Carolina…Opportunity zones are now law of the land. What that means is 25% of the poorest census tracts in America are now eligible for an opportunity zone. A person can sell an asset, not pay capital gains on it…invest that money into an opportunity zone. If they keep it there for ten years, that investment in these poor areas, they don’t pay capital gains taxes on it. So what this means is there’s about six trillion dollars of untapped wealth, of unrealized capital gains, that can now be directed into the poorest communities of America, to bring back jobs, to bring education, to bring revitalization into these neighborhoods. We also had something called social impact bonds, which is we want to have a social good that we want to focus on, we can bring private capital to it, float a bond to finance fixing these social problems in these poor communities and if it works, the bond pays off. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t, so it is all evidence-based policy making. Two great private sector ideas to focus on getting people in the private sector in our communities on fixing problems in poor communities.”

“It is a perfect time in this kind of economy, with a low unemployment rate, with the lowest jobless rate in [nearly] 48 years, to get people out of poverty [and] into the workforce”

Speaker Ryan: “We had two pilot projects to prove this ideaone in Maine and one in Kansaswhich says if you introduce a work requirement for an able-bodied adult on food stamps that doesn’t have small kids, so we’re talking about people ages 18 to 59, there are 12 million who are not working, who are not looking for work, or not in school, so their skills are atrophying. They are on the sidelines. We want to pull them in the workforce. We’ve got over 6 million jobs available right now in America that are going unfilled. So it is a perfect time in this kind of economy, with a low unemployment rate, with the lowest jobless rate in [nearly] 48 years, to get people out of poverty [and] into the workforce. What we are saying is you have to put 20 hours of work in a week or 20 hours of going to school or serving in a community, like a charity. And if you want to go to school, your costs will be covered. So this is, again, not about saving money, it is about saving lives. It says if you are an able-bodied person, don’t have small kids, you have to put in 20 hours of work, you have to go to work or go to school and your cost of school will be covered, because we believe this is how you pull people off the sidelines…and what we’ve learned is when you introduce a work requirement like that, it actually works.”

“We want to get people on to the life they want”

Speaker Ryan: “I think at the end of the day, a person who will go from food stamps to school, into a career and to be able to support themselves and have a family and live a great life and meet potential, that person will not be consuming these benefits and we’ll save money at the back end. But what’s more important than saving money is a person will reach their potential. The American Idea will be revitalized so that the condition of your birth doesn’t determine the outcome of your life in this country. A lot of people don’t think that’s true for them anymore. A lot of people are [in a] multi-generational poverty [trap]. We want to break the cycle. We want to get people into the life they want, onto the ladder of life. And we really believe that this kind of tool does that and we tried it and it’s worked, so that’s why we are pushing it.”

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