Ryan Opening Statement: A Progress Report on the War on Poverty

Opening Remarks, as Prepared for Delivery

Hi, everybody, and welcome. First, I want to thank our guests: Ron Haskins, Scott Winship, and Robert Greenstein. We’re here today to talk about economic opportunity. And all three of our guests have distinguished themselves on this issue. So we’re grateful they were able to join us. And we look forward to hearing your testimony.

I don’t need to tell any of you, but we could use some more opportunity in our country. Forty-seven million Americans live in poverty today. That’s 15 percent of our population—the highest in a generation. Millions of Americans struggle to make ends meet. We can do better.

Some say the problem is income inequality. The more the rich make, the less there is for the rest of us—and the harder it is to get ahead. It’s a compelling argument; the only problem is, it’s not true. There’s plenty of evidence that income inequality has little to do with upward mobility.

But that’s not to say we shouldn’t worry about inequality—or at least a certain type of inequality. To me, the problem isn’t that Washington is letting people keep too much of their own money. The problem is that Washington is holding too many people back.

The truth is, poverty isn’t just a form of deprivation; it’s a form of isolation. What do we know about the poor? They’re less likely to have graduated from high school. They’re less likely to work full time. And they’re less likely to have gotten married before they had kids. They’re cut off from three crucial sources of support: education, work, and family.

Now, government isn’t solely responsible for these trends. But in other ways, government is deepening the divide. Over the past 50 years, it has built up a hodgepodge of programs in a furious attempt to replace these missing links. But because these programs are so disorganized and dysfunctional, they pull families closer to government and away from society.

Because the federal government created different programs to solve different problems—at different times—there’s little to no coordination among them. And because of the way these programs are structured, families become ineligible for them as they make more money—so poor families effectively face very high marginal tax rates, in some cases over 80 percent. Government actually discourages them from making more money.

Government assistance shouldn’t be a road block. It should be an on ramp. So we have to remove these barriers to upward mobility. And we have to encourage everyone to get involved. For too long, too many people have watched this effort from a distance. They’ve said to themselves, “I’m working hard. I’m paying my taxes. Government is going to take care of this.” And in so many ways, government is encouraging this view. Well, that’s not going to cut it anymore. We need everyone to get in the game. We need everyone to get involved—person to person.

Now, today’s hearing is going to focus on the numbers. But we can’t stay locked away in our ivory tower. We have to get out and listen to the real experts: the people in our communities. I hope we all can do more on that front.

So I want to thank you all once again for coming to testify. And I look forward to our discussion. But before that, I want to recognize the ranking member, Mr. Van Hollen. Thank you.