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Paul Ryan: The war on poverty has 'failed miserably'

Immigration Ryan
Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Paul Ryan has the ability to define the Republican Party’s domestic policy agenda. The party’s adoption of his reform plans for entitlements and the budget have demonstrated that. Now the House Budget Committee chairman is turning his attention to poverty.

Ryan said Thursday night in an interview with NBC News’ Tom Curry that the 50-year old war on poverty initiated by President Lyndon Baines Johnson has “failed miserably” and called for the Republican Party to take the lead in reducing poverty.

“When I look at the money spent, when I look at the programs created, when I look at the miserable outcomes and the high poverty rates, as a policy maker, [I say] ‘We can do better than this and we need to figure out how,’ ” Ryan told NBC. He said the GOP must “launch an effort with open minds and open hearts on how best to attack the root cause of poverty.”

Earlier in the week, the Budget Committee announced a hearing to hold a “Progress report on the war on poverty.” Although Ryan so far has declined to spell out an agenda for reforming welfare or addressing poverty and a spokesman for his office said not to expect any proposals in the near future, the 43 year-old Wisconsinite is studying up on the issue.

Ryan told NBC that he is still “listening to people in the trenches” before forming his ideas on the topic, and that he’s been “going around the country in the inner cities, with the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, listening to people who are actually achieving self-sufficiency … who are coming out of jail, dropping their addictions, making sure they are raising their families, getting jobs…”

National Review’s Robert Costa reported in June on Ryan’s engagement with the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, a nonprofit anti-poverty group, and its head Bob Woodson, whom Costa described as a mentor to Ryan. The two take unaccompanied trips to inner-city neighborhoods to witness firsthand the causes of poverty.

The number of Americans living in poverty was at an all-time high of 46.2 million in 2011, the most recent year for which Census Bureau data is available. The number of families receiving food stamp benefits is also at a record for fiscal 2013. Those numbers in part reflect the toll of the financial crisis and subsequent labor market turmoil. The poverty rate was 12.5 percent in 2007, before the official start of the recession, before rising to the current 15 percent.

The reception to any moves by Ryan to update the GOP’s poverty agenda will be partly colored by his and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign assertions that President Obama “gutted” welfare reform by dropping work requirements for welfare recipients. That claim, which concerned the 1996 welfare reform law written by Republicans and signed by President Bill Clinton, was the cause of major controversy during the election.

Ryan’s office didn’t address the status of the 1996 law, but a spokesman told the Washington Examiner that next week’s hearing will review the reform, saying that “every 10 or 20 years you do reform, and then the world changes.”

One of the panelists slated to testify at next week’s hearing, Sister Simone Foxman, was a speaker at the 2012 Democratic National Convention and an organizer of the 2012 “Nuns on the Bus” tour of Catholic nuns who opposed the Ryan-authored GOP budget.