Paul Ryan wants to re-enlist conservatives in the war of poverty. It could be a fine idea — if he’s sincere, and if today’s conservatives are up for such a mission, and if conservative ideas about poverty can actually get a hearing. None of this is certain.

The high-profile Wisconsin congressman, the 2012 Republican candidate for vice president and a potential 2016 presidential contender, has for months been preaching the need to reform federal antipoverty programs along conservative lines. He’s eager to spring open the “poverty trap” he argues those programs currently set for the disadvantaged.

Ryan brought his poverty-fighting message to Minneapolis last week, at an event sponsored by the Center of the American Experiment. At one point he was handed an almost uncanny opportunity to sound a new and improved GOP tone in talking about people down on their luck.

An audience member asked Ryan about the infamous “47 percent” of Americans who pay no federal income tax, suggesting that many such Americans are hostile to the self-reliance that conservatism prizes because “they’ve been dealt a free hand.”

Yikes. Many may recall that one of the memorable pratfalls of the 2012 presidential campaign came when GOP nominee Mitt Romney was asked a similar question while being secretly videotaped at a private fundraiser. Romney went off on a disastrous riff suggesting that nearly half of Americans “believe that they are victims … that government has a responsibility to care for them … etc., etc.”

Last week Ryan instead gently lectured his questioner.

“People on welfare don’t want to be there,” he said. “They want to chart their own destiny.”

He spoke of a friend in his hometown of Janesville, Wis., who battled his way off public assistance after closure of the town’s auto plant had upended his life. Ryan admitted that “I’ve made this mistake” — of misunderstanding those on welfare. But it’s clear to him now, he said, that what’s needed are “the right policies to help them get on their feet.”

Something of an improvement. Yet Ryan isn’t always cautious enough negotiating this tricky terrain. Only a week before his Minneapolis talk, he set off a national storm of criticism when he said in a talk radio interview that a decline in the work ethic among American males, particularly in the “inner city,” plays a big role in perpetuating poverty and represents a “tailspin of culture” that has to be reversed.

Blasted for deploying racist code words, Ryan confessed to being “inarticulate.”

There’s something dreary about such controversies, in which it commonly occurs to no one to ask whether a jarring statement happens to be true — whether, in this case, male labor force participation really has notably declined, not least in the black community. (In fact, it has, as has been widely noted and as official statistics show.)

But Ryan surely understands that a conservative literally can’t be careful enough talking about poverty. That’s because, at bottom, the conservative contribution to this discussion — from the advent of the Earned Income Tax Credit to welfare reform and “faith-based initiatives” — has always been primarily to focus on the self-defeating choices some poor people make, choices like not working or having children out of wedlock. It is also to ask whether the structure of anti­poverty programs inadvertently encourages lousy choices that snare people in dependency.

Ryan seems particularly concerned about the disincentives to work often created when poor people lose eligibility for government assistance as they earn more income. This frustrating feature of all “means-tested” aid — what Ryan calls the “poverty trap” — is prominent in an analysis of current poverty programs released this month by the House Budget Committee that Ryan chairs.

These incentive and behavior issues are important. If America is permanently destined to have a large segment of its population characterized by single-parent homes and/or irregular work effort, it’s hard to see how it can ever eliminate chronic poverty. But it is dauntingly difficult to discuss such things.

Meanwhile, there are many other causes of economic immobility and hardship — the withering of well-paid jobs for basic skills and educational underachievement, to name two. And those already trapped in poverty, from whatever cause, still need help.

The biggest challenge facing Ryan’s antipoverty project may be his simultaneous and well-demonstrated zeal for taming the federal deficit through serious and concrete spending cut proposals. That, too, is urgent business. But while Ryan hasn’t yet offered specifics on his alternative approach to fighting poverty, his key to unlocking the poverty trap, one wouldn’t be shocked if his plan coincides with proposed sharp reductions in overall spending to aid the disadvantaged.

If so, critics will pounce, dismissing Ryan’s more caring language about the poor as a politics-inspired GOP “rebranding” strategy to counter Democrats’ re-energized focus on economic inequality. But then, that’s what they say already.

And anyway, if politics leads to enriching the range of ideas being brought to bear on the problem of want in our society, well, bully for politics.


D.J. Tice is at