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The GOP’s Soul Searching On Poverty

Via ABC News

When it comes to the policy priorities of an aspiring President, there are some generally accepted choices. Education reform, entitlement reform, something involving the military – all of these fit nicely into a portfolio that is suited toward biding ones time and putting points on the board while courting donors and building out an operation in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Let’s be clear: poverty is an important topic, but in official Washington, not typically one that results in great career longevity.

Even as LBJ’s great society marks 50 years, the results from his effort are uneven at best and often somewhat depressing. As syndicated columnist Cal Thomas recently pointed out, “In 1964, the poverty rate was about 19 percent. Census data from 2010 indicates that 15.1 percent are in poverty within a much larger population. The lack of government programs did not cause poverty, and spending vast sums of money has not eliminated it.”

Equally worth noting is the political cost of taking on such a delicate issue. House Republicans faced the full wrath of both interest groups and the media when trying to make even modest reforms to the food stamp program earlier this year, despite overwhelming evidence that it was fundamentally broken.

That’s why it came as something of a surprise that potential candidates for President like Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Ryan, the House Budget Committee Chairman, have all taken a shot at trying to solve the problem, albeit on traditionally conservative terms.

Ryan, who until his time as a Vice Presidential nominee was better known for budgets and fiscal issues, is the latest to grab what is something of a third rail, especially for Republicans. However, a recent interview revealed that Ryan is taking an interesting dual approach to the problem – an effort to experience it firsthand, combined with a pro-growth job creation strategy that echoes solutions in his recent budget plans.

When asked about why he’d take on an issue that has proven to be so difficult, Ryan responded, “I’ve been interested in this issue since the time I worked for Jack Kemp, who was a real pioneer in this field…I wanted to know what I could do to help.”

He continued, “I think the people in Washington very often talk about people in poor communities, but they very rarely talk with them. That’s why for the past year and a half, I’ve been traveling the country listening and learning from people fighting poverty on the front lines. I think the first step to real reform is a frank and open conversation.”

True to form, Ryan has visited everywhere from a church in Indianapolis to sitting down with traditional political adversaries in the Congressional Black Caucus to discuss the issue. The effort hasn’t been without its hiccups – Ryan has had to apologize for “inarticulate” comments when some on the left accused him of using the term, “inner city” to implicate minorities – Ryan said it wasn’t meant to implicate one group, but rather encourage communities to reach out to neighborhoods traditionally isolated by poverty.

When asked about the possibility of working together with colleagues on Capitol Hill, he sounded optimistic, if guarded, “Both parties agree we can do better. The status quo is unacceptable. We may disagree about potential reforms, but this is a discussion we need to have. And if we can continue the conversation—and extend it beyond Washington—I think we can find better ways to fight poverty and promote upward mobility in America.”

Unsurprisingly, Ryan deflected criticism that his budget and plans to fix poverty were fundamentally incompatible, calling the two issues “a separate effort” However, he also pointed out that controlling the deficit and reigning in national debt, two pillars of his arguments over the years go hand-in-hand. “If we don’t get the debt under control, we could have a debt crisis, which would hurt the most vulnerable first and worst. That’s why, to fight poverty, we need to get a handle on our debt and encourage economic growth. And that’s exactly what our budget does.” Ryan said.

It remains to be seen whether Ryan will actually develop legislation based on his fact-finding missions, though he’s said it was possible in the near future. Regardless, he stands near the heights of influence in the party and could play a considerable role in making it a major priority if he was so inclined.

Meanwhile, roughly 1500 miles from the Capitol, Oklahoma Senate candidate T.W. Shannon brings his own perspective and solutions to the table. Shannon, the first African-American Speaker of the Oklahoma House is also an enrolled member of the Chicksaw Indian nation and is fully aware of the issue both on the reservations and in his state. Yet he also terms the fight against poverty as part of a larger dimension of the “pro-life” movement. “”When we talk about valuing human life it starts in the womb but can’t end there” said Shannon. Free markets and capitalism have been the greatest way to move people out of poverty and into the middle class.”

Shannon is also quick to point out that as Speaker of the Oklahoma House, he pushed through a number of reforms, including welfare reforms that required a 20 hour workweek to receive benefits. While reforms of this ilk were possible in a deep red state like Oklahoma, how to help the poor is a much more complicated issue in today’s gridlocked Washington.

Regardless of the difficulty, it’s becoming increasingly clear that helping the less fortunate may provide Republicans with an issue they can use to talk with voters traditionally outside their comfort zone. For a party facing increasing demographic challenges, a concerted effort to take on poverty seems like a natural fit for reaching out to a new audience. Moreover, as columnist Nicholas Kristof points out, the fundamental policy platforms of Republican reform are issues already embraced by the Republican base viewed as common sense by most voters.

As they face increasingly encouraging signs of re-taking the Senate this fall, it will be interesting to note whether Chairman Ryan and other Presidential aspirants throw their political heft behind the effort, or whether it will slip to the back-burner. What will ultimately separate this latest round of theoretical policy proposals and listening tours is whether they result in legislative solutions that can actually provide solutions, not talking points. While crafting and passing significant legislation hasn’t been the trademark of Capitol Hill in recent years, doing so on an issue as complicated as poverty could prove to be the solution that gets Congress working again.

Time will tell.

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T.W. Shannon