Ryan at G'town: Gov't is losing war on poverty

Associated Press Published: April 26, 2012
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House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan is delivering the Whittington Lecture at Georgetown University today. You can watch the event online at C-SPAN here. A copy of his prepared remarks are below. Highlights include:

Since we meet today at America’s first Catholic university, I feel it’s important to discuss how, as a Catholic in public life, my own personal thinking on these issues has been guided by my understanding of the Church’s social teaching.

Simply put, I do not believe that the preferential option for the poor means a preferential option for big government.

Look at the results of the government-centered approach to the war on poverty. One in six Americans are in poverty today – the highest rate in a generation. In this war on poverty, poverty is winning. We need a better approach.

To me, this approach should be based on the twin virtues of solidarity and subsidiarity – virtues that, when taken together, revitalize civil society instead of displacing it.

Government is one word for things we do together. But it is not the only word.

We are a nation that prides itself on looking out for one another – and government has an important role to play in that. But relying on distant government bureaucracies to lead this effort just hasn’t worked.

Instead, our budget builds on the historic welfare reforms of the 1990s – reforms proven to work. We aim to empower state and local governments, communities, and individuals – those closest to the problem. And we aim to promote opportunity and upward mobility by strengthening job training programs, to help those who have fallen on hard times.

My mentor, Jack Kemp, used to say, “You can’t help America’s poor by making America poor.”

Ryan's full prepared remarks:

Thank you so much for hosting this event. The challenges our country faces right now are complex and can be daunting, and the need for well-informed public discourse has rarely been greater.

That’s why this lecture series is such a moving tribute to the memory of Leslie Whittington. This policy dialogue elevates our debates, and I am truly honored that you’ve asked me to participate this year.

It is a pleasure to speak at Georgetown, America’s first Catholic university and one of over 3,700 Jesuit educational institutions around the world serving over 2.5 million students.

The Society of Jesus has a well-earned reputation for educational excellence, and I am grateful for the opportunity to join in conversation with you today.

I suppose some of you don’t know about the Methodist who went to heaven and met St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. St. Peter gave him a tour, and they began by walking down a long hallway till they came to a door. They heard lots of laughter and singing, and the Methodist asked St. Peter, “What’s behind the door?” St. Peter said, “Oh, that’s the Presbyterians.”

A little later they came to another door where they could hear singing, praises and music. “What’s there?” he asked.  “Oh, that’s the Baptists,” said St. Peter.

Further down the hall there was still another door. But just before they reached it, St. Peter warned the Methodist to be very, very quiet. “Why?” he asked. “Well,” St. Peter said, “that’s the Catholics. And they think they’re the only ones up here!”

I suppose there are some Catholics who for a long time have thought they had a monopoly of sorts... not exactly on heaven, but on the social teaching of our Church. Of course there can be differences among faithful Catholics on this. 

The work I do as a Catholic holding office conforms to the social doctrine as best I can make of it.  What I have to say about the social doctrine of the Church is from the viewpoint of a Catholic in politics applying my understanding to the problems of the day.

Serious problems like those we face today require charitable conversation. Civil public dialogue goes to the heart of solidarity, the virtue that does not divide society into classes and groups but builds up the common good of all.

The overarching threat to our whole society today is the exploding federal debt. The Holy Father, Pope Benedict, has charged that governments, communities, and individuals running up high debt levels are “living at the expense of future generations" and “living in untruth.”  

We in this country still have a window of time before a debt-fueled economic crisis becomes inevitable. We can still take control before our own needy suffer the fate of Greece. How we do this is a question for prudential judgment, about which people of good will can differ.

If there was ever a time for serious but respectful discussion, among Catholics as well as those who don’t share our faith, that time is now. 

As I go around Southern Wisconsin and visit with Americans across the country explaining that our debt is on track to cripple the economy – and showing people charts and graphs to back it up – they often ask, is it too late to save America from a diminished future? Is the American Experiment over?

It’s a difficult question. It’s one that gives me pause. Frankly, it’s one that keeps me up at night.

But the honest answer is the one I’m about to give to you: Nobody ever got rich betting against the United States of America, and I’m not about to start.

Time and again, when America has been put to the test, when it has looked like the era of American exceptionalism was coming to a close… we got back up. We brushed ourselves off. And we got back to work – rebuilding our country, advancing our society, and moving the boundaries of opportunity ever forward.

Churchill put it best: “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing – but only after they have exhausted all other possibilities.”

Well, we have exhausted the other possibilities. After four straight trillion-dollar deficits, and very little economic progress to show for it, I think we know what doesn’t work.

We also have a growing consensus around the ideas that will work. But we lack willing partners at the highest levels to lead us, to unite us, and to address our defining challenge.

The President did not cause the crisis we face. Years of empty promises from both political parties brought us to this moment. But regrettably, this President is unwilling to advance credible solutions to the problem.

He has broken the promise he made during his last campaign to help us, quote, “rediscover our bonds to each other and get out of this constant, petty bickering that’s come to characterize our politics.”

He does not seem to understand that he can’t promote the common good by setting class against class, or group against group.

The divisive politics of the last three years have not only undermined social solidarity, they have brought progress and reform to a standstill at the very time when America is desperate for solutions to the coming crisis. 

Today, we face a fundamental challenge to the American way of life – a gathering storm, whose primary manifestation is the shadow of our ever-growing national debt… and whose most troubling consequence is ever-shrinking opportunity for Americans young and old.

This shadow hangs over young people, who face a struggling economy and the rising probability of greater turmoil ahead. More than half of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed in this economy.

This shadow hangs over seniors, who have been lied to about their retirement security.

And it hangs over parents. We wonder if we will be the first generation in American history to leave our children with fewer opportunities and a less prosperous nation than the one we inherited.

This storm has already hit Europe – where millions are enduring the painful consequences of empty promises turning into broken promises. But for too many in Washington, instead of learning from Europe’s mistakes, we are repeating them.

Our descent down this path was accelerated four years ago, when poor decisions and bad policies from Wall Street to Washington resulted in a crisis that squandered the nation’s savings and crippled our economy.

What we needed then were policies to strengthen the foundations of our free-enterprise economy. 

What we got was the opposite.  

We needed a single-minded focus on restoring economic growth: After the immediate panic in late 2008 subsided, we needed to restore real accountability in the financial sector and just clean up the mess.

We needed to restore the principle that those who seek to reap the gains in our economy also bear the full risk of the losses. 

We needed policies to control our debt trajectory so that families and businesses were not threatened by the shadow of an ever-rising debt.

Instead, the White House and the last Congress enacted an agenda that made matters worse.

They misspent hundreds of billions of dollars on politically connected boondoggles.

Then, when the country’s number one priority remained getting the economy back on track, the White House and the last Congress made their number one priority a massive, unwanted expansion of the government’s role in health care.

They even tried to impose a costly increase in energy prices in the middle of a recession.

And their idea of Wall Street reform? A blank check for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and a new law that provided more protection and preferential treatment for the big banks, and gave more power to the same regulators who failed to see the last crisis coming.

Their reliance on government’s heavy hand with more borrowing, more spending, and unprecedented interventions into the private sector were not just bad policy.

They created tremendous uncertainty for businesses and families, as job losses continued to mount.

We needed solutions to restore the American Idea – an opportunity society, in which government’s role is not to rig the rules and aim for equal outcomes, but – in the words of Abraham Lincoln – “to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all,” so that all may have an equal opportunity to rise and freely pursue their happiness. 

Instead, the White House and the last Congress exploited a crisis to advance a government-centered society – a massively expanded role for the federal government in our lives, higher spending to support this expanded role, and higher taxes to support the higher spending.

Higher borrowing, too. In three and a half years, debt held by the public has grown by roughly $4.5 trillion – a 70 percent increase.

As bad as this is, our debt is projected to get much worse, spiraling out of control in the years ahead.

This bleak outlook is paralyzing economic growth today. Investors, businesses and families look at the size of the debt and they hold back, for fear that America is heading for a diminished future.

And should that future arrive, it would mean real pain for all Americans. Much higher interest rates would make it harder for families to buy homes, students to go to college, and businesses to expand and create jobs.

But it would mean more than economic pain for you and me. If we remain on this path, bond markets in a state of panic will turn on us, threatening to end the American Idea.