Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan to battle poverty hits bipartisan chord

The Wisconsin Republican is pushing a plan that lets states decide where social service funds are allocated.

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Given the financial mess the leaders of the federal government have created with poor spending decisions — much of it on well-intended social programs — U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan might have hit on a winner with his plan to fight poverty.

Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, suggested Thursday the government combine 11 anti-poverty programs into a single grant program. This would allow states flexibility to allocate the funds to areas with the most pressing needs to their citizens.

Ryan’s “Opportunity Grant” plan would impose work or job training requirements on aid recipients and require states that choose to participate to set up at least two service providers. The idea, according to Ryan, is to encourage government partnerships with local nonprofits and community groups that know the needs of their communities.

“This isn’t really exactly a block grant where you cut a check to the state and call it a day,” Ryan said during a panel discussion after his speech. “Funds would have to be spent on the poor — no funny business ... It would be budget neutral, and not a penny less.”

In theory, this seems like an excellent plan.

“The idea would be to let states try different ways of providing aid and then to test the results — in short, more flexibility in exchange for more accountability,” Ryan said. “Get rid of these bureaucratic formulas. Put the emphasis on results.”

Nevertheless, Ryan even opening the door to this discussion is a positive. He has been critical of the welfare system in the past, even referring to it as a hammock rather than a safety net. So, in a way, it has the same feeling as when President Nixon, a staunch anti-communist, visited China in 1972. The visit became the linchpin of formally normalizing relations between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China.

When such a dramatic shift in ideology is seen it makes it easier for others who held those same views to bend and look at issues differently.

Realistically, given the deep partisan divide in the U.S. capital and the nation, progress toward real welfare reform will be slow.

Still, Ryan’s vision has legitimately opened the door. During his speech, Ryan reached out for “constructive criticism” from liberals and conservatives.

That’s the kind of approach that plants the seeds needed for real reform.

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