Ryan plan merits honest dialogue

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan has been talking about poverty. The Wisconsin Republican has been visiting poor neighborhoods across the country, and just unveiled a detailed proposal to inject more energy and innovation into helping more Americans succeed.

Democrats should embrace Ryan's enthusiasm, rather than letting the same-old partisan sniping shut down an honest dialogue.

Ryan wants to let the states try new approaches to helping the poor, with careful analysis of results by a neutral third party. Those states and providers who improved outcomes would get more money, not less. The goal, Ryan says, is to streamline services in a comprehensive way.

"Right now, you have to go to a bunch of different offices to enroll in a bunch of different programs, often with different paperwork requirements and eligibility standards," Ryan wrote in describing his plan. Under Ryan's idea of an "opportunity grant," poor people would go to one office and work through one person.

Democrats dislike talk of "block grants" — federal aid sent to states with fewer restrictions. Yet Ryan's idea isn't that different from Wisconsin Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin's reasonable and bipartisan push (before the Affordable Care Act was passed) to let states experiment with widely varying health care models.

Ryan also is interested in expanding the earned income tax credit to reward work, and in reducing penalties for nonviolent drug crimes.

That should excite Democrats. But both sides of the partisan divide will have to give and take to get something big done.

Democratic President Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty more than a half-century ago. That battle has not been won.

Ryan's call for shaking up the status quo of social services certainly comes with political calculations, but also with heart.

Democrats should embrace shared goals and seek to improve Ryan's effort.