Speaker Ryan: The Government Has Created a Poverty Trap

For the past several years, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has embarked on a nationwide listening tour. Unlike the typical political handshake-and-photo-op, these quiet gatherings have been with community leaders who, at the human-to-human level, are tackling America’s greatest social challenges.

With the help of civil rights hero Robert Woodson, Ryan has zigzagged across the country learning from those who are revitalizing America’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods and towns with their on-the-ground expertise and earnest compassion for those who live there. His largely covert stops have yielded friendships with trusted leaders thwarting gang violence, substance abuse and economic stagnation.   

Ryan has zigzagged across the country learning from those who are revitalizing America’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods and towns with their on-the-ground expertise and earnest compassion for those who live there.

“What I’m trying to do with all of this is learn from successful poverty fighters right under our noses in our communities who are actually achieving the goal of beating poverty and getting to the root causes of poverty, and they are extremely successful,” Speaker Ryan explained in an exclusive interview on the Opportunity Lives podcast, OppCast.

“This is a beautiful part of civil society that needs to be looked upon, that we need to shed a light upon so that we can show and see that there are people in our communities who are successfully fighting poverty, breaking the cycle of poverty and helping get people into lives of self-sufficiency to restore opportunity to poor communities,” Ryan said.

“This is a beautiful part of civil society that needs to be looked upon, that we need to shed a light upon so that we can show and see that there are people in our communities who are successfully fighting poverty, breaking the cycle of poverty and helping get people into lives of self-sufficiency to restore opportunity to poor communities”

Ryan’s main concern, he says, is that the federal government has created a “poverty trap” with programs that discourage economic mobility and personal fulfillment. To make matters worse, many of these government-run programs aren’t “well-tested” or “well-run,” so they rarely achieve what they’re meant to accomplish.

So Ryan turns to community heroes picking up the pieces of government and social failure to help find a way out. These leaders, he believes, are better equipped to address these challenges and to inform the policies that lawmakers pass.

In Elyria, Ohio, Ryan befriended Pastor Paul Grodell, a recovering opioid addict who — with his wife, Cindy — is transforming their drug-ravaged community with a holistic, faith-based approach to rehabilitation. The Grodells meet the corporal needs of addicts — everything from toilet paper to school uniforms for their children — while guiding them on a path to clean living and productive citizenship.

Ryan’s main concern, he says, is that the federal government has created a “poverty trap” with programs that discourage economic mobility and personal fulfillment.

In Dallas, Texas, Ryan got to know Pastor Omar Jahwar and Antong Lucky. They run an anti-violence organization that specializes in improving community-police relations and discouraging young people from joining gangs. They were his two honored guests at the 2016 State of the Union address.

His travels have sent him from Denver, Colorado, to Birmingham, Alabama, to Indianapolis, Indiana, and many places in between. Last week, Ryan stopped in Providence, Rhode Island, to visit Year Up, a nonprofit organization dedicated to nurturing economic opportunity for young adults from financially underserved communities.

“I got to learn about them last year in Boston, where it was founded,” Ryan said. “What Year Up is basically focused on doing is taking young people who are living in poor conditions who are struggling to find opportunity find opportunity.”

Year Up’s five-step model is simple:

  1. Identify urban young adults who are highly motivated but lack opportunities to enter the mainstream economy.
  2. Talk to companies to understand the skills they need but struggle to find in new hires.
  3. Teach young adults using a six-month classroom program to develop skills employers seek.
  4. Place participants in a six-month internship program with a partner company, so that they can apply their skills and gain critical work experience.
  5. Honor participants with a graduation, so they can launch meaningful careers and contribute to society.

Like so many other groups with whom Ryan works, Year Up strives to bridge the “Opportunity Divide,” placing 6 million young adults who are out of work or school in the 12 million skilled jobs available to qualified hires. And with 16,000 graduates and more than 250 corporate partners in just 16 years, Year Up is on its way.

“It is all solely focused on closing the Opportunity Divide. And what Year Up has done — it’s all private sector leaders who figured out we need to connect young people in poverty who are lacking opportunity with area employers to have good, life-sustaining jobs,” Ryan told Opportunity Lives.

“It is all solely focused on closing the Opportunity Divide. And what Year Up has done — it’s all private sector leaders who figured out we need to connect young people in poverty who are lacking opportunity with area employers to have good, life-sustaining jobs”

“It involves hard skills, soft skills, job training and making sure people learn how they can scale the income ladder,” Ryan explained. “It is a phenomenally successful program. Eighty-five percent of the young people, 18 to 24 years old, get a job, a career or a vocation. It’s really an impressive program.”

Year Up is just one group within Ryan’s network of poverty fighters that have one big thing in common: they’re tremendously successful at doing what the government can’t and shouldn’t. They’re investing in individuals and communities on a human level, instead of treating them as mere statistics on government charts.

These groups have also shown Ryan how government hurts, instead of helps, what they do. Regulatory burdens and bureaucratic interference often impede the ability of non-profit organizations serve people and create limitations to economic mobility for those struggling to get ahead.

Regulatory burdens and bureaucratic interference often impede the ability of non-profit organizations serve people and create limitations to economic mobility for those struggling to get ahead.

“Common complaints are regulations,” he said. “There a lot of local and federal regulations that make it very difficult for [non-profit groups] to operate.”

“You have a lot of local licensing barriers, where it’s difficult for a person to get a profession because the licensing requirements are cost-prohibitive,” Ryan continued. “There are always barriers at the state, community, local and federal level that make it difficult for these poverty groups to deliver care.”

Ryan’s goal is to remove these artificial limitations to success for thriving organizations and the individuals they serve. He sees his listening tour not as a political stumping opportunity, but instead, a chance to learn how government can get out of the way so those changing lives are empowered to do so.

“What we see as our job, as people in public life, is to get more of this, clear the barriers. In many cases, the government does more harm than good,” Ryan said. “We want to clear the barriers so that they have the freedom and the ability to do more of this.”

Learn more about Speaker Paul Ryan’s listening tour in our audio interview on the Opportunity Lives Ric ochet podcast, OppCast.

Ellen Carmichael is a senior writer for Opportunity Lives. Follow her on Twitter @ellencarmichael.