THE BLOG
01/07/2016 06:36 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2017

Paul Ryan's Anti-Poverty Summit: A Test of Republicans' Sincerity On Poverty

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Paul Ryan has been no shrinking violet when it comes to talking about poverty.

As chair of the House Budget Committee, Ryan released a lengthy report on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty and convened a series of hearings focused entirely on the topic. He famously took a "poverty tour" and subsequently released a big antipoverty plan to overhaul our nation's safety net.

And just last month, Ryan devoted his first major policy speech as Speaker of the House of Representatives to discussing "the millions of people stuck in neutral... the 45 million people living in poverty."

Ryan is hardly alone. Indeed, 2015 seems to have been the year of Republicans finding religion on poverty and inequality, with GOP presidential candidates like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and former Governor Jeb Bush making major speeches on the subject, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and then-Speaker Boehner (R-OH) lamenting the ever-widening gap between rich and poor in a widely-noted joint interview on 60 Minutes.

And on January 9th, Speaker Ryan -- along with Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) -- will be hosting an "antipoverty summit" in Columbia, South Carolina, featuring the GOP presidential candidates.

Republicans' sudden concern for struggling families is no doubt newsworthy, particularly in the wake of Mitt Romney's radioactive remarks about "the 47 percent." Ryan in particular has received no shortage of praise as a supposed anti-poverty crusader. But as we marvel at Republicans' seeming about-face on poverty and inequality, we must not lose sight of the other half of the story -- their policies. While Ryan and his colleagues' newfound talking points may be pitch-perfect, unfortunately their policies remain nothing short of a blueprint for exacerbating poverty, inequality, and wage stagnation.

For example, while the refrain of Ryan's first big policy speech as Speaker -- "Push wages up. Push the cost of living down. Get people off the sidelines." -- sounded more like the slogan for one of the Democratic presidential campaigns than the grand finale to a policy speech by a Republican Speaker of the House, you could drive a truck through the gap between his rhetoric and the reality of his policies.

For starters, Ryan has voted against raising the minimum wage at least 10 times since taking office. It's pretty hard to "push wages up" while maintaining a poverty-level federal wage floor.

And let's not forget Ryan's budget proposals. Year after year as chair of the House Budget Committee, Ryan's budgets got two-thirds of their cuts from critical programs that help keep struggling families afloat -- such as nutrition assistance, housing assistance, and Medicaid -- all to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations.

While Ryan made headlines this past fall for extolling the importance of balancing work and family while weighing the notion of picking up the Speaker's gavel, he has consistently opposed legislation that would help families access paid family and medical leave.

And Ryan's big antipoverty plan? Despite being billed as bold and new, it amounted to little more than the same tired policies Republicans have been pushing for years: block granting and slashing funding for effective programs and sending them to the states. We need look no further than the failed experiment that is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to know how that movie ends.

It will take more than shiny new talking points to tackle poverty and inequality in America. The upcoming anti-poverty summit offers a test of whether Ryan and his GOP colleagues mean what they say on these issues -- by abandoning their failed policies of the past.

If so, the summit will feature announcements of their support for raising the minimum wage, as well as for job-creating investments in research and infrastructure and pathways to good jobs such as national service and subsidized jobs. They'll call for strengthening key safety net programs, such as by eliminating counterproductive savings caps, and will encourage states to expand Medicaid. They'll adopt work-family policies such as paid leave and paycheck fairness. And they'll embrace high-quality affordable childcare, universal pre-K through a partnership with the states, and put higher education within reach for all families.

But if not -- we'll know they're still just putting lipstick on a pig.

Rebecca Vallas is the director of policy of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and the co-host of TalkPoverty Radio.