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Ryan seeks fix for fed programs on poverty

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March 11, 2014 | comments

By Mark Schaaf, Racine Journal Times

RACINE — U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan says his new push to reform government’s approach to poverty is not meant to simply slash funding.

Ryan, R-Wis., last week released a 204-page report offering a sharp critique of federal government assistance programs. The report, which coincided with the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” looked at the history of dozens of programs and cited studies to gauge the effectiveness of each.

The report includes stinging criticism of programs such as Medicaid, food stamps and Head Start, questioning their performance and cost. Ryan doesn’t spell out what he would do with those programs, saying the report was meant to start a debate about making changes. He said he plans to present ideas for reforms later this summer.

“I’m not trying to make this a budget-cutting exercise,” Ryan said Monday in a phone interview with The Journal Times.

“As a policymaker, what I’m trying to figure out is, how can we expand what works and then fix what’s not working.”

Poverty continues to be a big problem in Racine, in Ryan’s 1st Congressional District, where almost a quarter of households had incomes at or below poverty levels in 2012 and 40 percent of children were in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey released last fall.

Ryan said he traveled to several cities over the past year getting perspective from people living in poverty and those working to fight it. Hearing from those on the ground, like he did again Monday at Cristo Rey Parish, 800 Wisconsin Ave., has been “an enormous eye opener,” he said.

He heard a lot of good ideas and “amazing stories” he wants to see replicated, he said.

“It’s been one of the best experiences I’ve had since being in Congress,” Ryan said, “which is to visit with poor families, and to visit with people who are serving the poor, to get their perspective on what society and the government is doing to fight poverty ... I feel so blessed to have just been doing this for the last year.”

While the report sharply criticizes government programs, it’s been met with criticism of its own.

Some economists cited in the report said Ryan misinterpreted their research, while prominent New York Times columnist Paul Krugman called it a “con job.”

Closer to home, one of Ryan’s opponents in this fall’s election, Democrat Rob Zerban, slammed Ryan and Republicans for failing “to honestly account for their own policies.” He said budget cuts, free trade deals and “giveaways to Wall Street” — not government programs — have driven more people into poverty.

Ryan dismissed the criticism, saying it was a byproduct of advocating major policy changes.

“If you challenge the status quo, people who defend the status quo don’t like that, and you’ll get a negative reaction to that,” Ryan said. “Then there are those who will make political arguments or partisan arguments, and you just take that with a grain of salt.

“If the status quo was working great, then there wouldn’t be a need to question the premise of the status quo. It’s not doing well, and therefore I question it.”


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