Total federal, state, and local government spending on welfare programs now tops $1 trillion annually. More people than ever before depend on the government for housing, food, and income. And yet too many Americans still live in poverty.
As conservatives press for action, Heritage Foundation President Kay Coles James sat down with House Speaker Paul Ryan in his office on Capitol Hill for a conversation on welfare reform, poverty, the importance of work, and the opportunities to forge a better future.
Watch the full interview below. An edited transcript follows.
PAUL RYAN: Hi, Kay. How are you?
KAY COLES JAMES: Good. Thanks for taking the time today to sit down with us and talk about an issue that I know is vitally important to both of us.
RYAN: My pleasure.
JAMES: Before we get knee-deep into a policy discussion about welfare reform or about workforce requirements and all the nitty-gritty, green-eyeshade stuff surrounding welfare reform, it was important to me that people know the Paul Ryan that I know. I've known you for a long time.
RYAN: You have. We've known each other a long time.
JAMES: What I know and I want others to know is, why do you have such a passion for this issue?
RYAN: I am so excited about this notion of an opportunity society. As conservatives, we've always believed in equality of opportunity. I believe in the American idea—the condition of your birth does not determine the outcome of your life, in a free society with a free economy and freedom and limited government, that helps the most people flourish as possible.
And so our conservative principles apply to the problems of the day, give lift to the least among us. I'm very excited about that. I'm very excited about helping get people out of poverty, into the workforce, helping get people to where they want to go in life. That's what our principles are all about. That's so refreshing, to see it actually happening in practice.
[There are] so many policies we've already gotten done that we're really excited about, opportunity zones, private-sector solutions like social-impact bonds. That’s all nitty-gritty stuff. What's exciting is human flourishing. It's about getting people on the path of life, and it's about creating that opportunity society that we've been talking about as conservatives for so long that we now have a really good chance of actually dramatically advancing.
JAMES: Not only do we share values, we share a love of this country. We share a desire to see people uplifted out of poverty, but we share friends as well.
RYAN: Yes, we do.
JAMES: One of those is Bob Woodson.
RYAN: My mentor.
JAMES: Absolutely. Talk about that relationship, and I'm particularly interested in what you learned as you traveled the country with him.
RYAN: My original mentor was Jack Kemp.
JAMES: Mine, too. Did you know that?
RYAN: Yeah, so he's what got me into politics. I mean, I was Jack’s staff economics guy working on tax reform and the gold standard and all those things. Back then, we called them enterprise zones.
RYAN: I met Bob Woodson through Jack Kemp in the early 1990s and really took a liking to him in those days. I was actually friends with Bob's son who, as you know, passed away in a car accident.
Fast forward to 2012, and I was on the ticket with [Republican presidential candidate] Mitt Romney, and I wanted to talk about this side of conservatism, this side of conservatism that's for lifting the poor up and getting people opportunity and going at root causes of poverty and focusing on outcomes and results.
I called up my old friend Bob Woodson, and I said, "You know, I'd like you to help me with this."
He did, but that campaign came and went. After the 2012 election, I called Bob up again. I went back to Congress and said, "I want to learn more about the poor, about the struggling of the poor and about solutions that actually work, and solutions that are homegrown, that are in communities, that aren't bureaucracy and government and D.C., but actual poverty solutions, which is exactly what then the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise—now called the Woodson Center—was all about.
Bob and I, for a couple of years, flew around America, and he took me into some of the toughest, hardest-hit, most poor communities in rural and urban America.
JAMES: I want to focus on that moment for a minute. You cared enough to get on an airplane.
RYAN: Oh, yeah, about once a month we did this.
JAMES: Travel all over this country, and so what you're about to propose as policy agendas and initiatives really came out of firsthand experience and care?
RYAN: Yeah. Grass roots, going to the poorest communities in America for a couple of years once a month with Bob, just the two of us, and sometimes we'd bring a staff or two just to take notes and record things, learning about the struggle, what people were facing, the obstacles they had, but [also] the great solutions.
Bob, he has such a better way with words on these things. What he would do is go to poor communities and find people who were beating all of the odds, who were raising good families, who were overcoming incredible struggles, find out what they were doing, what was their secret to success, figure out what it was, and basically broaden it. Put it in a bottle and sell it, meaning get those ideas and get behind those people.
There are so many phenomenal people fighting poverty really successfully, turning around people, helping fight bad habits, saving souls. That experience taught me that we're getting it wrong in Washington, and we've got to break down the bureaucracy, go with what works, and really it is, it's a manifestation of our conservative principles.
As Catholics, we call it subsidiarity—which is, do not displace local solutions. We all have an obligation at the local, human-to-human person level to fix these problems. Fight poverty eye-to-eye, soul-to-soul, person-to-person, and find out what works and magnify it.
That informed me of our conservative poverty-fighting agenda up here, which now we're well into actually making happen, whether it's the opportunity zones that are now in law, social-impact bonds that are now in law, or evidence-based policy commission, which is how to measure success, based on outcomes and results to workforce development and welfare reform, which is where we're going now.
JAMES: Can you tell me from that time that you spent with Bob, going around the country talking to people, learning from people, could you share with us perhaps one interesting person that you met or some lesson that you learned that changed you or your thinking?
RYAN: I'd say the policy, the idea of redemption is something that I really learned and understood more fully.
Antong Lucky's a good example. Antong Lucky was a gang leader in Dallas. He and Omar Jahwar, who are two pastors at Urban Specialists in inner-city South Dallas, who have done so much to go get gang members, Crips and Bloods in particular, turn them around, and have these gang members, turn them into poverty-fighters, turn them into people who are revitalizing neighborhoods.
Antong Lucky's a perfect example. He was an ambitious young man who scaled the heights of gangs and redeemed himself. Now he's making sure that people don't go down that path.
Jubal Garcia, another buddy of mine, runs Outcry in the Barrio. It started in San Antonio, and he's got Outcry in the Barrio Ministries, which are basically taking heroin-addicted people off the streets, getting them clean, and getting them onto a good life, and they're doing it through Christ.
Jubal [and] his dad, Freddie Garcia, started this. Jubal [and his dad, who] was a heroin addict himself ... have taken this ministry, and it's international now. There are so many stories just like that of people who have done so many things.
Just in Wisconsin, we've got the violence-free-zone schools; which is, we're taking and getting mentors with credibility, people who've been through prisons, people who've been in gangs, people who learned the error of their ways and are making sure that younger people don't repeat the mistakes that they made.
It had tremendous credibility, and they're helping alter the trajectory of people's lives so that they actually don't make those mistakes. They're resetting the system; meaning, they're resetting young people who are destined for poverty and a life of crime, and getting them on a really good path. It actually works.
They're going at root causes of poverty, going at flooding the zone, so to speak, with good ideas that actually work. It's person-to-person. It's eye-to-eye.
JAMES: I was born to a welfare mom, a father who was suffering under the chemical addiction of alcohol, and my mother had to struggle to raise six children living in a public housing project.
When people ask me about being a black conservative Republican, “How in the world can you possibly be, given your particular background?” They tend to think that the policies that I endorse and promote come out of some newfound religion that I got late in life, but quite frankly, my definition of a black conservative is someone who has the audacity to believe their grandmother.
My grandmother was the best anti-poverty program I ever knew—the values that she put into us, the things that she instilled in us.
I think, because Mr. Speaker, I have seen the devastating ...
RYAN: If you're going to call me that, I'm calling you Mrs. James. Paul and Kay, OK?
JAMES: OK, we'll go there. I figured I have a limited amount of time to throw that title around, so I might as well get it in.
It isn't in spite of the fact that I came out of those circumstances that I am a conservative and want to really sink my teeth into some substance of welfare reform. It's because of. I lived those programs. I have seen the effects of those programs.
I was given the honor by George Allen when he was governor of Virginia to oversee the reform at that level, at the state level. To me, it was the highest honor to look at some programs that I had seen over the course of years, the devastating effects that when we conservatives talk about these issues, very often, people think it's a green-eyeshade thing that has to do with balancing budgets and making sure that we bring entitlements under control.
One of the things that I want to take away from this time, our time together, is for people to understand and grasp that, in your heart of hearts, you genuinely care about poor people. You know the effects [of]—and this is how I like to frame the last 50 years of [anti-poverty] policy—the unintended consequences of the misguided compassion of people who genuinely do care about poor people.
I want people to understand you and I genuinely care about poor people, and the reasons we want to see these policy initiatives and changes is because it will uplift and empower and change their lives, and give hope, and give opportunity.
RYAN: So … as a policymaker, I got into this by touring the country with Bob Woodson, finding out about what the poor were facing and what their uphill challenges were. I also looked at “What does the government do about this?” Obviously, there's a role [for] government. No one is suggesting otherwise.
We are coming [up] on the 50th anniversary on the War on Poverty. We were looking at the fact that trillions of dollars had been spent, and the poverty rates were stubbornly similar—meaning, we really didn't move the needle. With all this effort, with all these dollars spent, the question was, “Have we won the War on Poverty?” And the answer is, “No.”
JAMES: No. We haven't. Not by any measure.
RYAN: Not by any measure. That's why we decided we've got to rethink this. We should be measuring success in the War on Poverty not based on how much money are we spending, how many programs has government created, how many people are on those programs.
JAMES: How many people aren't on those programs?
RYAN: Exactly! How many people are out of poverty? Are we actually getting at root causes? Are we measuring success by results not based on effort? So, we've been turning the ship of state in that direction. Pointing it towards there.
What we also learned was the basic take on this War on Poverty is, we were telling people in America, “You are stuck in your current station in life, and government is here to help you cope with it,” which is antithetical to the American idea of opportunity and upward mobility and flourishing.
What we wanted to do was attack that notion and get back into the minds of Americans, those who have lost hope, those who have been in multigenerational traps of poverty, this is America. You can make it. You can be who you want to be. There are ways of doing this. That to me is the mental change on our approach to poverty. It's really important.
The other thing was, because of this War on Poverty, we basically took so many Americans who were not poor and pushed them off to the sidelines and told them, “Don't worry about it. Pay your taxes. Government will fix this problem.” Which is false.
We need everybody involved. We need people that care. We need them to get involved. We need to do it at the local level. We need to do it with their dollars, with their time, with their instincts, with their ingenuity.
That to me is one of the mistakes that was made with this War on Poverty, which was to displace the human condition, the local control, the local institutions, a civil society, which is the space between ourselves and our government, which has been atrophying because government has been displacing it.
We want to revise and revitalize that. That, to me, is one of the benefits of all these reforms and these policies we're pursuing these days.
JAMES: Well, [what’s] interesting to me is that, given all of what's on your plate, that this is so important to you. What I want people to understand as they're listening is that ... there's a serious problem with the entitlement programs in our country.
It has devastating effects on the people that we claim to care the most about. And ... as we get involved in these policy debates and discussions surrounding legislation that we're going to be looking at and involved in, it’s important to understand that ... .
I think everyone would concede that Democrats care a great deal about this. The progressives in this country care deeply about poor people. So do we.
So do we. That's why I think we can and should reach a tremendous amount of consensus on this, because if you genuinely care about solving the problem of poverty in this country, set the partisanship aside, set the politics aside, and let's look at what works.
RYAN: That's right. That's the capstone of our agenda for this two-year term, which was our “better way” agenda. The capstone of that agenda is, attack poverty at root causes, go with what works—education reform, career and technical education reform, prison reform, opportunity zones, social-impact bonds, welfare-to-work, work requirements, those things actually work to move people from welfare to work so they can get on a path of upward mobility and the dignity of work.
JAMES: Can we just talk about work for a minute? Let's just focus on work.
RYAN: Work works! That's what I keep telling people.
JAMES: Work works. I think that sometimes people think, "You mean-spirited people, why do you want to force people to go to work!” Can you just talk about work for a minute? Why's that important?
RYAN: First of all, work works because a person gets the dignity of knowing that they themselves are providing for themselves and their family. They get pride from it. They learn from it. They grow from it. Their kids see good examples from it.
When my dad died, I was 16 years old. My mom had to go back to school, got on a bus every day to Madison, Wisconsin, had to go back to school to get a skill so she could start a small business to work.
The example that I saw, my mom pursuing an education after she and I were at home with my [grandmother with Alzheimer’s], was a great example to me—the work ethic my mom displayed, the courage she displayed. Then to start a small business, just to make a life for herself and for us. That, to me, was so inspiring.
JAMES: I saw that, too. I think it had a profound influence on my life. My mom was on welfare for a short period of time, and she desperately wanted the dignity of work. She wanted to go out and earn the money.
She worked several jobs to get it done. My mom cleaned houses in order to provide for her family.
Not only that, I saw my brothers step up. Their love of golf today has to do with the fact that there was a golf course near our public housing projects. They could go over to the golf course and caddy, and walk around all day long, and carry those bags.
They tell how they would take the money, divide it, and they would put what they would keep in one pocket, and what they were going to bring home to my mom in the other.
I've never seen people who didn't work and who didn't understand that by hard work, they could accomplish things.
RYAN: So, we know these examples, [because] we've lived these examples. The point is, we want that to be shared with everybody in America; by having people work so they can set good examples, so they can get better lives.
That is opportunity. That is dignity. That is the American idea. That's the story of America, that's a beautiful one that we want to see retold.
What's exciting about this moment and this time is, jobs are out there. The economy is growing. The [jobless-claims] rate is at a 49-year low. The unemployment rate is at an 18-year low.
We have 6.6 million jobs available right now in America. We have 12 million able-bodied adults who are working age, who could work, who aren't, or could be in school getting a skill who are not. We have people that we want to pull off of the sidelines and get them into work so that they can get on the escalator of life.
This is the perfect time to do that because we're not in a deep recession. We don't have massive unemployment. We have opportunities that are out there. It's the perfect time to help these values and these skills and these lessons be applied to get people out of poverty and to work. That's why we're doing what we're doing.
JAMES: Of course it is. You know, the American people are some of the most compassionate people on the planet. We give charitably. We really do.
I think what's important for people to understand as we move into the phase where this becomes legislation, and they hear the policy debates going on, that wanting someone to have the opportunity to work, someone who is able to work, it's not a mean-spirited, nasty thing to require of someone. It is one of the most empowering, one of the most exciting opportunities for anyone.
I've seen the faces up close and in a personal way of someone who has not had a job. First day, the pride that comes with getting up, and getting dressed, and going out to work. What that means for a kid who actually sees their parent going out to work. The pride that happens when you cash that first paycheck.
RYAN: It’s infectious.
JAMES: It really is.
RYAN: And it is this beautiful American idea. That is what we want to pass on to each generation.
JAMES: Well, we've got a lot of work in front of us. What I'm hoping is, out of conversations like this, people will come to understand that there are people of good will, people who care about poverty, people who care about uplifting the poor, and providing hope and opportunity on both sides of the aisle.
We want policy that works and has great outcomes, because people in poverty deserve just that.
RYAN: This is why I'm hopeful and optimistic. And thank you, Kay. Thank you, Heritage Foundation.
JAMES: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.