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December 17th, 2014

Insight

A GOP war on poverty?

Jay Ambrose

By Jay Ambrose

Published August 15, 2014

Here they come, a charging brigade, conservatives who just might win a fresh war on poverty and otherwise help the down and out because of compassion that hardly stands alone. It is accompanied by analytical soundness.

But wait a minute. Did I say conservatives?

You bet. The reference was not to so-called progressives too often regressive in their allegiance to the repeatedly tried and still untrue. The reference was to such inspirited, right-of-center souls as Republican Paul Ryan, the House budget committee chairman and besieged striver for fiscal sanity who is now also a proponent of a sagacious, far-ranging plan to shrink impoverishment.

The plan was born of meticulous investigation that included time visiting neighborhoods with Robert Woodson, an outstanding African-American activist highly successful in rousing the poor to help themselves. His has been a rescuing practicality too often avoided by academicians, self-serving bureaucrats or vote-greedy politicians, and it shows up big time in a Ryan plan that simplifies, localizes and personalizes.

A bold plot line is to put fully funded federal assistance programs in one package that state and local governments could innovatively administer. Advisors would involve themselves closely with recipients, encouraging work even as financial aid to workers was increased. There would be constant, cautious testing of results so the safety net would stay intact and false starts could be rectified. This nationwide system of trial and error could very well help enlarge self-reliance, lifting large numbers to the middle class. Welfare rolls could very well contract.

Ryan aims for much else. He is, for instance, seeking educational improvements in the lower grades and more open doors in occupational training and college for the disadvantaged after high school. He would revamp licensing rules inhibiting entrepreneurship. And as a matter that should win wide applause, he wants to address our prison calamity, reducing runaway incarceration rates, instituting meaningful rehabilitation and facilitating more chances for better lives after release.

While some on the left got here first, Ryan is not alone among Republicans in such ambitions. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky has joined with a Democrat, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, to sponsor a bill that would approach drug issues more through rehabilitation than prison while also moving to seal records of many nonviolent offenders. Republican Gov. Rick Perry of Texas has moved aggressively against mandatory sentencing and for more emphasis on drug treatment over incarceration, thereby lowering his state's prison costs and population.

What these and other office holders grasp is that our imprisonment rates are the world's highest, 716 per 100,000 adding up to some 2.4 million prisoners in federal, state and local facilities. The social costs are enormous, especially among some widely affected low-income groups. Families are disrupted. Those with records can't get jobs. Young imprisoned law-breakers are trained to be still better criminals. There's evidence crime could actually be kept more in tow by decreasing excessive punishment of the non-violent. Not to try is not to care.

These Republicans seem to me to care, just as still others seem to care mightily about other issues related to the poor, such as Marco Rubio, the senator from Florida who in January outlined anti-poverty proposals in a number of respects similar to those of Ryan. But are the majority of congressional Republicans ready to act?

That's a concern of Ron Haskins, a Brookings Institution poverty scholar who has called the Ryan plan "the best, most comprehensive and potentially bipartisan set of ideas for promoting opportunity that has appeared in many years." His question is whether other Republicans will say that's not us and back off.

In that case, this charging brigade's ideas could end up defeated even if pursued legislatively as they should be, one step at a time with no shortage of pilot programs.

Let's hope for a rally of intelligent caring instead.

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Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.

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