Ryan’s Opening Statement: A Progress Report on the War on Poverty: Lessons from the Frontlines

Opening Remarks, as Prepared for Delivery

Hi, everybody—and welcome.

Today, we’re going to learn about what it takes to fight poverty. I think we can all agree that Washington isn’t making anybody proud these days. Right now, the federal government spends nearly $800 billion a year on 92 different programs to fight poverty. Yet the official poverty rate is the highest in a generation. And over the past three years, deep poverty has been the highest on record. Clearly, we can do better.

And Washington has a role to play. After President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty in 1964, we made progress in some areas—but not enough. And, as the following chart shows, when we reformed welfare in 1996, we made even more progress—but still not enough. The evidence is clear: We do need a safety net, but there’s no substitute for economic growth. We need both of them to lift people out of poverty. Thanks to today’s lackluster recovery, we’re in a rut—household income is flat and there’s less opportunity to go around.

Here’s the good news: All across this country, people are fighting drug addiction. They’re helping families in need. They’re rebuilding their communities—and, in the process, they’re rebuilding our country. So if we want to change the status quo, my thinking is, let’s ask the people who are changing the status quo—every day in their communities. And today we’re going to hear from people who have been fighting poverty on the front lines.

I’m very happy to have Bob Woodson here with us. He’s the president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise—and a great friend of mine. Under his leadership, CNE has supported a number of groups that are changing their communities for the better. In Milwaukee, for instance, CNE has helped organize several Violence-Free Zones near public schools. The VFZ program is helping keep kids safe and encouraging them to go to college. He’s taught me a lot over the years, and I’m delighted to have him here today.

Next we have Bishop Shirley Holloway. Her ministry—House of Help City of Hope—has been doing wonderful work in Washington, D.C. for nearly two decades now. Her ministry has served thousands of people struggling with drug abuse. She has helped families reunite and put their lives back together.
We also have Marian Wright Edelman. All her life, she has been an eloquent spokeswoman for children and civil rights. I want thank all three of our guests for their hard work and for coming here to speak with us today.

And I want to make something clear: The question isn’t whether the federal government should help. The question is how. Bob Woodson and Bishop Holloway have made real progress. How can we support them? What else do we need to do? And how do we make sure that every single taxpayer dollar we spend to reduce poverty is actually working?

So today I hope we can do something pretty rare in Washington: I hope we can listen and learn—from people fighting poverty on the front lines. They’re helping families rebuild their lives, and in their own way, they’re helping expand opportunity in this country. We’re happy to have you—and today, we’re all ears.