Expanding opportunity in America

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by Paul Ryan,

from American Enterprise Institute,

Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) remarks as prepared for delivery at the American Enterprise Institute on a program called the Opportunity Grant, a program to repair the safety net and help families get ahead.

… let’s start with a principle we can all agree on: Hardworking taxpayers deserve a break in this country. Too many families are working harder and harder to get ahead, and yet they’re falling further and further behind. The costs of food, housing, and gas keep going up, but paychecks haven’t budged. So whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, I think we can all agree: America deserves better.

What do we want? A healthy economy. And a big part of that is having a strong safety net—both for those who can’t help themselves and for those who just need a helping hand. That’s our goal. The problem is, that’s not what we’re getting—though it’s not for a lack of trying. We spend almost $800 billion on 92 federal programs each year to fight poverty. And yet the poverty rate is the highest in a generation. Deep poverty is near record highs. When you take a step back and look at all this, you just have to think, “We can do better.”

Now, I don’t have all the answers. Nobody does. But the way I see it, we have an obligation to expand opportunity in America—to deliver real change, real solutions, and real results. And to do that, we need to stop listening to the loudest voices in the room—and start listening to the smartest voices in the room.

So today, I want to start a conversation.

I’d start a pilot program called the Opportunity Grant. It would consolidate up to eleven federal programs into one stream of funding to participating states. 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. My thinking is, get rid of these bureaucratic formulas. Put the emphasis on results. Participation would be voluntary; no state would have to join. And we would not expand the program until all the evidence was in. The point is, don’t just pass a law and hope for the best. If you’ve got an idea, let’s try it. Test it. See what works. Don’t make promise after promise. Let success build on success.

Here’s how it would work:

1. Each state that wanted to participate would submit a plan to the federal government. That plan would lay out in detail the state’s proposed alternative. If everything passed muster, the federal government would give the green light. And the state would get more flexibility; it would get to combine into one stream of funding up to eleven different programs—things like food stamps, housing assistance, child care, cash welfare. This new, simpler stream of funding would become the Opportunity Grant, and it would be budget neutral.

2. Every person who can work should work.

3. You’ve got to give people choices. The state welfare agency can’t be the only game in town. People must have at least one other option, whether it’s a non-profit, a for-profit, what have you.

4. You’ve got to test the results. The federal government and the state must agree on a neutral third party to keep track of progress.

That’s the deal.

Take an example. Let’s call her Andrea. She’s 24. She has two kids ages four and two. Her husband left the family six months ago, and she does not know how to contact him. Andrea graduated from high school, but her only work experience was a two-year stint in retail. She and her kids now live with her parents in a two-bedroom mobile home. Her parents can’t support her over the long haul. She’s been trying to find work for the last five months. She doesn’t have a car. She can’t afford child care. And her dream is to become a teacher.

Under this plan, Andrea would go to a local service provider. She would sit down with a case manager and develop an “opportunity plan.” That plan would pinpoint her strengths; her opportunities for growth; her short-, medium-, and long-term goals. The two of them would sign a contract. Andrea would agree to meet specific benchmarks of success, a timeline for meeting them, consequences for missing them, and rewards for exceeding them.

Andrea’s short-term goal is to find a job. But her long-term goal is to find the right job—to become a teacher. So she might find a job in retail to pay the bills. Meanwhile, her case manager would help pay for transportation and child care so she could take classes at night. Over time, Andrea could go to school, get her certification, and find a teaching job. The point is, with someone to coordinate her aid, Andrea would not just find a job; she would start a career.

In short, we’re reconceiving the federal government’s role. No longer will it try to supplant our communities but to support them.

In that spirit, I want to throw my support behind a number of ideas that my colleagues in the House and Senate have put forward. They all expand opportunity by taking decision-making away from Washington and bringing more accountability to government at all levels.

This is similar to what the President has proposed, but with one big difference: I wouldn’t raise taxes. I’d pay for it by eliminating ineffective programs and corporate welfare, like subsidies to energy companies. My thinking is, stop programs that don’t work and support programs that do.

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