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Ryan on the War on Poverty: 'It has failed'

NBC News' Brian Williams interviews Paul Ryan and a panel of journalists about poverty in America at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

By Domenico Montanaro, Deputy Political Editor, NBC News

Former Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan on Thursday argued that the War on Poverty has “failed” in an interview with NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams as part of the network's "In Plain Sight" poverty reporting project, commemorating Lyndon Johnson’s the War on Poverty. 

“I would give us a failing grade,” Ryan said, before adding of the War on Poverty: “It has failed.”

Ryan argued that the solutions to poverty have less to do with the federal government and more to do with people getting involved in their local communities. For example, Ryan, who is Catholic, cited suburban churches getting involved in urban churches. 

“We’ve got to get our communities engaged,” Ryan said, adding, that the “family breakdown” is also part of the problem. He said, “People think it’s being handled by government. ‘I pay my taxes…’ People need to get involved in their own communities” and government, he said, needs to “remove the barriers that allow that to happen.” 

Government can do some things, though, Ryan said, such as: “Income support” that “needs to encourage upward mobility and work,” measure whether federal jobs programs work, and school and housing vouchers. 


He said “pre-K makes a difference,” but he did not endorse any specific solution – only to say that the government should “stop subsidizing programs that are failing.” 

President Obama called for universal pre-K to be a national priority in his State of the Union last year. But there has since been no movement in Congress on expanding it.

The Wisconsin Republican and House Budget Committee chairman has kept a low profile since the 2012 presidential when the Republican ticket of himself and presidential nominee Mitt Romney lost in an electoral landslide. Ryan, who has said social safety nets have “failed miserably,” has made it a point to go to impoverished areas over the past year to try and show Republicans in a more compassionate light. 

The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found Republicans lacking in that very area. There was a 28-point empathy gap with Americans saying by a 45-17 percent margin that Democrats did a better job “showing compassion and concern for people.” 

Income inequality was a key issue in the presidential race. And an important piece of that was the Ryan budget. It was something President Barack Obama used to hammer the Republicans with. Obama and Democrats amplified that message with Romney's tax plan that favored the wealthy and the video showing Romney talking about what he said were 47 percent of Americans who wanted government entitlements that would vote for Democrats. 

The Ryan budget would have substantially restructured Medicare; cut Medicaid, food stamps, and transportation infrastructure; reduce the top tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent. The 2011 version of the Ryan budget would have transformed Medicare from a government-run program to one where future seniors receive a voucher or premium support to purchase health insurance from private insurers. The 2012 version, however, would give future seniors the choice of purchasing private insurance or through Medicare’s traditional fee-for-service model.

Ryan and his allies contended a bold plan – reforming entitlements like Medicare and Medicaid – and slashing discretionary spending is needed to reduce the deficit and debt. But critics argued the pain comes primarily from the poor and middle class.

An analysis from the liberal-leaning Center on Budget Policies and Priorities says that 62 percent of the spending cuts in the Ryan budget would come from low-income programs, while 37 percent of its tax benefits would go to those making more than $1 million per year.

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