In Cleveland today, Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan devoted an entire speech to a topic President Obama has largely avoided in this campaign: poverty. While the GOP team has routinely discussed the plight of the nation’s poor, references to poverty have been largely absent from Obama’s speeches. And today, Ryan made the Republican ticket’s most extensive statement yet on poverty and the question of how to promote upward mobility in America. Here is the speech, in its entirety:
Thank you very much for that warm welcome – and thank you Jimmy, for that great introduction. I want to thank everyone at Cleveland State University for your kind hospitality. I especially want to thank President Berkman for his help in making this happen. And of course, none of us would be here today without the extraordinary work of Bob Woodson and the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. Thank you, Bob, for bringing us together today.
We are here in partnership on behalf of an idea – that no matter who your parents are, no matter where you come from, you should have the opportunity in America to rise, to escape from poverty, and to achieve whatever your God-given talents and hard work enable you to achieve.
In so many ways, our nation’s history has been a long struggle to bring opportunity into every life. Our nation was founded on the creed that “all men are created equal” – that we all possess equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But, of course, equality of opportunity hasn’t always been a fact of life in our country – it’s been something we’ve had to constantly fight for. It’s a cause that continues to this day.
Even though so many barriers to equality have fallen, too many old inequities persist. Too many children, especially African-American and Hispanic children, are sent into mediocre schools and expected to perform with excellence. African-American and Hispanic children make up only 38 percent of the nation’s overall students, but they are 69 percent of the students in schools identified as lowest performing.
That’s unacceptable. We owe every child a chance to succeed. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, we owe them “an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.” Upward mobility is the central promise of life in America. But right now, America’s engines of upward mobility aren’t working the way they should.
Mitt Romney and I are running because we believe that Americans are better off in a dynamic, free-enterprise-based economy that fosters economic growth, opportunity and upward mobility instead of a stagnant, government-directed economy that stifles job creation and fosters government dependency.
There is something wrong in our country 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?
To answer that, we have to take a hard look at the approach government has been taking for the last five decades, and ask ourselves whether it’s working.
With a few exceptions, government’s approach has been to spend lots of money on centralized, bureaucratic, top-down anti-poverty programs.
The mindset behind this approach is that a nation should measure compassion by the size of the federal government and how much it spends.
The problem is, starting in the 1960s, this top-down approach created and perpetuated a debilitating culture of dependency, wrecking families and communities.
This was so obvious to everyone by the 1990s that, when a major welfare program was finally reformed, the law was passed by a Republican Congress and signed by a Democratic president.
Instead of seeing increases in hunger and poverty, we saw welfare enrollment drop dramatically, as millions of our fellow citizens gained new lives of independence. We saw child poverty rates fall over 20 percent in four years – and we saw employment for single mothers rise. Fewer welfare checks going out meant more money for states to spend on child care, so more moms could go to work and support themselves.
Welfare reform worked because it encouraged the best in people – it appealed to their desire to shape their own destiny and advance in life. And it made major strides toward getting the government out of the business of fostering dependency.
Here’s the problem: The welfare-reform mindset hasn’t been applied with equal vigor across the spectrum of anti-poverty programs. In most of these programs, especially in recent years, we’re still trying to measure compassion by how much government spends, not by how many people we help escape from poverty.
Just last year, total federal and state spending on means-tested programs came to more than one trillion dollars. How much is that in practical terms? For that amount of money, you could give every poor American a check for $22,000.
Instead, we spend all that money attempting to fight poverty through government programs. And what do we have to show for it?
Today, 46 million people are living in poverty. That’s nearly one in six Americans – the highest poverty rate in a generation. During the last four years, the number of people living on food stamps has gone up by 15 million. Medicaid is reaching a breaking point. And one in four American students fails to attain a high-school diploma. In our major cities, half of our kids don’t graduate. Half.
In this war on poverty, poverty is winning. We deserve better. We deserve a clear choice for a brighter future. So what is the alternative approach that Mitt Romney and I are offering?
Well, to hear some tell it, we think everybody should just fend for themselves. But that’s just a false argument – a straw man set up to avoid genuine debate.
The truth is, Mitt and I believe in true compassion and upward mobility – and we are offering a vision based on real reforms for lifting people out of poverty.
I am a proud Republican. Our party does a good job of speaking to the part of the American Dream that involves taking what you’re passionate about and making a successful living from it.
But part of what makes America great is that when we don’t succeed, we look out for one another through our communities. My party has a vision for making our communities stronger – but we don’t always do a good job of laying out that vision.
Mitt Romney and I want to change that. Each of us understands the importance of community from experience. I come from a town that’s been hit as hard as any. A lot of guys I grew up with worked at the GM plant in my hometown, and they lost their jobs when it closed.
What happened next is the same thing that happens in communities around the country every day. The town pulled together. Our churches and charities and friends and neighbors were there for one another. In textbooks, they call this civil society. In my own experience, I know it as Janesville, Wisconsin.
As for Mitt Romney, he not only understands the importance of community – he’s lived it. He’s a guy who, at the height of a successful business, took the time to serve as a lay pastor for his church for fourteen years, counseling people in Boston’s inner-city neighborhoods, especially when they lost a job. He’s a man who could easily have contented himself with giving donations to needy causes, but everyone who knows him will tell you that Mitt has always given his time and attention to those around him who are hurting.
He’s the type we’ve all run into in our own communities – here in Cleveland, too, and all around America. Americans are a compassionate people, and there’s a consensus in this country about our fundamental obligations to society’s most vulnerable. Those obligations are not what we’re debating in politics. Most times, the real debate is about whether they are best met by private groups, or by the government; by voluntary action, or by more taxes and coercive mandates from Washington.
The short of it is that there has to be a balance – allowing government to act for the common good, while leaving private groups free to do the work that only they can do. There’s a vast middle ground between the government and the individual. Our families and our neighborhoods, the groups we join and our places of worship – this is where we live our lives. They shape our character, give our lives direction, and help make us a self-governing people.
Earlier, we talked with some of the people who define civil society and make it work – folks like Bob Woodson, whose Center for Neighborhood Enterprise empowers community organizations to improve people’s lives. And Dr. Marva Mitchell, who has been ministering to people in the inner cities for decades. And the Reverend Willie Peterson, whose NewBirth Project has helped almost 200 ex-offenders gain and maintain employment.
We have Brian Wade here with us today. When Brian felt called to open a homeless shelter in Elyria, he didn’t just volunteer his time there. He and his wife moved their family – a baby and two young ones – into the shelter and lived there for seven years. He and his volunteers didn’t just provide hot meals and clean clothes – though that alone would have been a lot. At his youth outreach center, he didn’t just give kids a safe place to come in from the streets. In all of this, Brian gave himself. He didn’t show people in need the right path – he walked it with them, not just as a guide, but as a friend.
This good man, and others like him, are witnesses. And the needy people who have encountered them feel a presence greater than just one compassionate soul. What’s really at work here is the spirit of the Lord, and there is no end to the good that it can inspire.
For our part, should we have the chance to serve, I want you to know this. Mitt Romney and I share your cause, and we will seek your counsel. We will remember your hospitality today, and it will be returned. The transformative power of your example will inform our approach to public policy. And when the question is how best to help low-income families reach for opportunity, we will not defer to the Washington-knows-best crowd. We will talk to the real experts – including many of the people who are right here in this room.
So what is government’s duty when it comes to the institutions of civil society? Basically, it is to secure their rights, respect their purposes, and preserve their freedom.
Nothing undermines the essential and honorable work these groups do quite like the abuse of government power. Take what happened this past January, when the Department of Health and Human Services issued new rules requiring Catholic hospitals, charities and universities to violate their deepest principles. Never mind your own conscience, they were basically told – from now on you’re going to do things the government’s way.
This mandate isn’t just a threat to religious charities. It’s a threat to all those who turn to them in times of need. In the name of strengthening our safety net, this mandate and others will weaken it.
The good news? When Mitt Romney is president, this mandate will be gone, and these groups will be able to continue the good work they do.
But it’s not just the abuses of government that undermine civil society – it’s also the excesses of government. Look at the road we are on, with trillion-dollar deficits every year. Debt on this scale is destructive in so many ways, and one of them is that it crowds out civil society by drawing resources away from private giving.
Even worse is the prospect of a debt crisis, which will come unless we do something very soon. When government’s own finances collapse, society’s most vulnerable are the first victims, as we are seeing right now in the troubled welfare states of Europe. Many there feel that they have nowhere to turn for help, and we must never let that happen in America.
Where government is entrusted with providing a safety net, Mitt Romney and I have our own vision for how to keep it strong. It is a vision that leaves the failures of the past in the past, and proposes instead to build on those reforms that have worked.
For starters, a Romney-Ryan administration will clearly restore those parts of the welfare-reform law that have been undone or weakened. We will do this for the sake of millions of Americans who deserve to lead lives of dignity and freedom.
We will also apply other lessons from welfare reform’s success. For example, many of the solutions that worked in the 1990s came from states such as my home state of Wisconsin, and leaders such as former Governor Tommy Thompson. President Clinton and the Congress recognized that it would be a good idea to give states more power to tailor welfare to the unique needs of their citizens.
Mitt Romney and I want to apply this idea to other anti-poverty programs, such as Medicaid and food stamps. The federal government would continue to provide the resources, but we would remove the endless federal mandates and restrictions that hamper state efforts to make these programs more effective. If the question is what’s best for low-income Ohioans, shouldn’t we let Ohioans make that call?
But strengthening these safety net programs is still not enough. If we want to restore the promise of America, then we must reform our broken public-school system.
The special interests that dominate this system always seem to have their own futures lined up pretty nicely. But when you think about the future of the young adults that the system has failed, many will face a lot of grief and disappointment – and their country owes them better than that.
I recently spent some time at the Cornerstone School, an independent school in Detroit that has served urban students for twenty years. Cornerstone is an amazing place – you can feel a culture of responsibility and achievement all around you.
While I was there, I got to talking with a tenth-grader named Alexis. She is already reading economics books I didn’t encounter until college. But more importantly, she and her classmates are learning the values of discipline, accountability, respect, service, and love for one another.
When you set aside all the obstacles to education reform, you are left with one obvious fact: Every child in America should have this kind of opportunity. Sending your child to a great school should not be a privilege of the well-to-do. Mitt Romney and I believe that choice should be available to every parent in our country, wherever they live. Education reform is urgent, and freedom is the key.
The strength of the safety net and the quality of our education system are among the many issues this year where the neediest of Americans have a direct stake. But above all else is the pressing need for jobs. Right now, 23 million men and women are struggling to find work. Median family income has gone down in each of the last four years.
Whatever your political party, this nation cannot afford four more years like the last four years. We need a real recovery.
Mitt Romney is uniquely qualified and ready to deliver this recovery – because he understands how an economy works and what makes it grow. And like the best leaders, he has set a clear goal: Twelve million new jobs over the next four years.
We can do this – but it’s going to require bold departures from current policies.
Sadly, in four years and now in four debates, neither President Obama nor Vice President Biden has offered the American people an agenda for a second term. But we know what it would be: More of the same.
Mitt Romney and I will get American workers back in the business of producing American energy. We won’t add to the job-training bureaucracy, we’ll get resources directly to workers who need new skills. We’ll open new markets to American products, and when it comes to trade, we’ll crack down on countries that cheat. We won’t bury our kids in debt, we’ll stop spending money we don’t have. And we won’t raise taxes, we’ll cut tax rates for small businesses and working families.
Many of those living in poverty today were in the middle class just a few years ago. We can help them regain the ground they’ve lost, with a focus on growth all across the American economy.
Since becoming the nominee for vice president, I’ve thought more than once about another man who ran for this job as a champion of growth and prosperity – my mentor, Jack Kemp. One of the things his friends loved most about him was his big heart. When Jack Kemp talked about opportunity in America, he meant opportunity for everyone. When he spoke of progress, he meant progress for everyone.
That is the kind of spirit that any political party can use, in any generation. Over many years, Jack set his mind and heart to the problems of poverty, brushing aside a lot of old assumptions and settled attitudes. The same holds true for Mitt Romney. If you want to know how Mitt Romney will lead our nation, then look at how he has led his life. He’s a modest man with a charitable heart, a doer and a promise-keeper.
Mitt and I have a message that’s bigger than party. We are speaking to all Americans in this campaign, because we believe, as Jack Kemp believed, that economic growth and equality of opportunity are the surest path to the pursuit of happiness.
Wherever we are in life, whether we are rich or poor, black, brown, or white, American by chance or by choice, we are one nation, rising or falling together. That is the promise of America, and we can make it real in the lives of the many who feel left out. To all of those Americans, I ask you to support our campaign, because our cause is yours, and yours is ours, and together we can achieve great things.
Thank you and God bless.