Ryan’s Opening Statement: A Progress Report on the War on Poverty: Reforming Federal Aid

Opening Remarks, as Prepared for Delivery

Morning, everybody—and welcome. This is the fourth in our series of hearings on the War on Poverty. We’ve been talking about how to promote upward mobility in America in the 21st century. And today, we’re going to pick up where we left off.

Last time, we heard from people fighting poverty on the front lines. Today, we’re going to hear from people who have worked on the supply lines. We’re going to look at how the states and federal government can better support the fight against poverty. 

Because, if we’ve learned anything, it’s that there’s room for improvement. Each year, we spend nearly $800 billion on 92 different programs to fight poverty. And yet the official poverty rate hasn’t budged in years. People can get help if they fall into poverty. But far too many people still can’t earn enough to get out of poverty. And over the past three years, deep poverty has been the highest on record. Clearly, something’s not working. We need to try something new.

And given our history, I’d say we’re due for an adjustment. The last time we made a big change was welfare reform in 1996. That was almost 20 years ago. We all know what happened. Poverty among children of single mothers fell by double digits. We also learned—and our witnesses are unanimous on this point—that work is crucial to fighting poverty. 

And there’s another takeaway. Before Congress began drafting legislation, it allowed the states to try out new ideas. The National Evaluation of Welfare-to-Work Strategies program tested a number of different approaches: work-first programs, education programs, and different mixes between the two. I think that approach—with an emphasis on results, on concrete evidence—is just the mindset we need today.

But times have changed. Today, the biggest means-tested programs are Medicaid, SNAP, and the Earned Income Tax Credit. We spend more on Section 8 housing than we do on TANF. And we haven’t made any serious reforms in almost two decades. 

Poverty is a complex problem, and deep poverty is especially difficult. Many people in deep poverty face serious challenges, like addiction, homelessness, and disability. And all these challenges are interrelated. But our current system is too fragmented to give them the care they need. If we can provide better coordinated care, we can help more people get out of poverty.

Today, we will hear from two panels. On the first is our colleague, the assistant Democratic leader, Congressman James Clyburn. He will brief us on the 10-20-30 plan. And to make sure we have enough time to hear from all our witnesses, we will not take questions for Mr. Clyburn. 

On the second panel, we will hear from three people who have extensive experience working with aid programs at the federal, state, and local level. First, we have Jason Turner, who worked with Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson to reform our state’s welfare program. Then we have Robert Doar, who served as commissioner of New York City’s Human Resources Administration under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Finally, we have Olivia Golden, who led the D.C. Children and Family Services Agency from 2001 to 2004. Thank you all for being here today and sharing your expertise.

The question I want to answer today is how can we improve? How can we make these programs better? How can we get more bang for the buck? And how can we get more people involved? I’ve said we need to hear from people with different points of view—and from different walks of life. Today, we’ll hear from people who have firsthand knowledge of the challenges we face. And with that, I’d like to recognize the ranking member for his opening remarks.