In his first policy speech since becoming the Republican vice presidential nominee, Paul Ryan said he and Mitt Romney will restore upward mobility and fight poverty in part by limiting the federal government's commitment to safety net programs.
"Upward mobility is the central promise of life in America," Ryan said. "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."
Ryan noted that Americans born into poor families are more likely to stay poor as adults than Americans born into wealthy families.
A Romney administration, Ryan said, would help restore mobility by turning the open-ended commitments of federal anti-poverty programs into "block grants" -- fixed chunks of money the federal government sends to states each year regardless of the amount of need. States, in turn, get more leeway to design their own programs.
"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," Ryan said. "If the question is what's best for low-income Ohioans, shouldn’t we let Ohioans make that call?"
That's how a Republican Congress and Democratic President Bill Clinton reformed welfare in 1996, resulting, Ryan said, in reduced child poverty and increased employment among single mothers. (The success of the reform, however, is debatable; the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, for instance, has found that caseloads have declined as the number of families with children in poverty has increased.)
As a congressman, Ryan has authored several proposals to slash spending on programs for poor people by turning them into block grants. According to an analysis by the centrist Urban Institute, Ryan's proposal to repeal health care reform and block grant Medicaid, which provides health insurance to people below near-poverty income levels, would reduce federal spending by $1.7 trillion and Medicaid enrollment by 50 percent, resulting in a loss of insurance for 35.7 million Americans.
Ryan also proposed dramatic cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as food stamps, in place of looming cuts to defense spending. (During the third presidential debate on Monday, Romney said he did not support cutting food stamps.)
Part of the problem with programs that haven't received the block grant treatment, Ryan said, is that they perpetuate "government dependency." But he also said government spending itself is a threat to people who rely on safety net programs for food and health care.
"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," he said. "Many there feel that they have nowhere to turn for help, and we must never let that happen in America."
Ryan also said government spending discourages people from giving to charity. "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."
Economists at the St. Louis Federal Reserve found in 2009 that increased government spending can have a limited negative effect on charitable donations, but also that growth in charitable giving had paralleled growth in government spending over the past 40 years (PDF).
A Romney administration, Ryan said, would seek balance between "allowing government to act for the common good, while leaving private groups free to do the work that only they can do."
To Americans who feel left out of America's promise, Ryan said, "I ask you to support our campaign, because our cause is yours, and yours is ours, and together we can achieve great things."