In case you're not a student of party labels, one campaign in this year's presidential election is talking about poverty, and one campaign is not. And you might be surprised to know which is doing which.
During the presidential debates, Mitt Romney noted repeatedly that three years after the Great Recession ended, 46 million Americans are still living in poverty. And this week, Paul Ryan, his running mate, delivered a major address on the problem of poverty in America.
Romney and Ryan belong to the Republican Party, which is supposedly comprised of patricians and plutocrats. They're talking about poverty at a time when the nation is paying attention -- a much-needed discussion because the issue is the subject of so much political demagoguery. The Romney-Ryan ticket is unlikely to win a majority among low-income voters on Nov. 6, but Americans of all income levels need to know that there is a better approach to poverty than the one that has been failing for decades.
During his 1980 campaign for president, Ronald Reagan spoke about the welfare reforms he had enacted earlier as governor of California. "I don't believe the stereotype, after what we did, of people in need who are there simply because they prefer to be there," he said. "We found the overwhelming majority would like nothing better than to be out, with jobs for the future, and out here in the society with the rest of us."
In a similar vein, Ryan argued that Republicans' 1996 reform of cash welfare programs worked because "it encouraged the best in people -- it appealed to their desire to shape their own destiny and advance in life." He explicitly rejected the notion that Americans should "measure compassion by how much government spends, not by how many people we help escape from poverty." Government has a role in preventing the worst in hard times. But when, as today, millions of willing workers are forced to rely on government assistance, only a reinvigorated private economy can provide long-term economic support for them in the form of jobs.
"There is something wrong in our country," Ryan said, "when 40 percent of children born to parents in the lowest fifth of earners never know anything better. The question before us today -- and it demands a serious answer -- is how do we get the engines of upward mobility turned back on so that no one is left out from the promise of America?"
Yet even when economic times are good again, the nation will still need to care for the poor. And so at the heart of Ryan's speech was another fundamental point: No one believes the straw-man argument so often attributed by President Obama to conservatives, that "everybody should just fend for themselves." Conservatives believe in a government safety net -- best run at the state and local level -- and in private institutions of civil society, which are especially important wherever specialized help is needed. "[T]here has to be a balance," Ryan said, "allowing government to act for the common good, while leaving private groups free to do the work that only they can do."
So many are wrongly framing the great moral issue of our time as whether the federal government will spend a mere $42 trillion dollars over the next 10 years, or a generous, compassionate $44 trillion. Conservatives have a real answer to poverty, but they must clearly explain, as Ryan did, that there is a better alternative to the top-down solution.