By: AIF Staff
This week, American Idea Foundation President Paul Ryan spoke at the National League of Cities’ 55th annual Congressional City Conference in Washington, DC.
In front of more than 2,000 local officials, city leaders, and community partners, former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan talked with League of Cities CEO and Executive Director Clarence Anthony about the steps that elected leaders can take to expand opportunity in urban and rural areas.
Ryan discussed the work being undertaken by the American Idea Foundation and how it can help city leaders and their citizens tackle the pressing policy challenges of the day. Excerpts of Speaker Ryan and Clarence Anthony’s wide-ranging conversation follows.
Q. Since you retired, you’ve had a job with the American idea Foundation which is focused on fighting poverty and increasing economic opportunity. Can you tell us a little bit about the Foundation and the work that you’re doing?
A. Yeah, I founded this Foundation after I retired and I was inspired by my mentor, who was a guy named Jack Kemp. Jack was my boss and he’s the one who got me involved in politics. I was this young economics guy, running around America with him going to places like Cabrini Green and Robert Taylor homes down in Chicago. I spent a lot of time working on housing policy and long story short, the issues that I worked on and that were my passion in Congress were budgets and the rest, but also poverty alleviation.
And so, I spent a good chunk of time with friends of Jack’s, like Bob Woodson, running around America, working on poverty policies. And so, I decided to start a Foundation, the American idea Foundation, which is based on the idea that the condition of birth doesn’t determine the outcome of your life. It focuses on center-right poverty solutions.
There are a few laws that I’ve pushed into law in 2017 and 2018. I want to make sure that these laws are well executed: Opportunity Zones, Social Impact Bonds, the Evidence Act. I want to make sure that those laws are well executed. And so, there are some new poverty solutions that I really believe can move the needle on fighting poverty far more effectively, using the new tools that we have in law today than we ever did before.
I spent a great deal of time on these issues. There are some proven models of success that need to be built up and scaled up so they can be replicated, and then we can really put a dent on deep poverty, on deep intergenerational poverty. That is where I think the focus ought to be, because if we can get deep poverty, we can fix a lot of the other types of poverty situations.
Q. One of the initiatives that a lot of the local leaders are implementing and dealing with are Opportunity Zones and I think the challenge is looking at the growth and development in some communities and gentrification and displacement. So, what do you think about that balance between implementation and the idea of Opportunity Zones?
A. So, I have worked on this idea for over twenty years. Jack Kemp used to call these Enterprise Zones and we tried to push this into law in the early 1990’s.
It got to a point where when I was Speaker and we were doing tax reform in 2017, Tim Scott had this great bill. It was Tim Scott and a guy named Pat Tiberi who had a bill that was basically the concept that we’ve always believed in. From our perspective, reducing rates on capital to go into the poorest communities is a really smart way of getting capital into communities. When the score came back — score meaning the cost estimate of this bill, while we were putting the tax reform package together and we had a lot of decisions we had to make fairly quickly, we said this goes in there….
We were thinking to ourselves and I remember this conversation. We have to make sure that this is not just a tool for regentrification, where it’s just real estate comes in and pushes poor people out of the areas, but instead this is a tool for revitalization.
So, what my Foundation works on is to make sure that the Opportunity Funds that are being erected out there understand the mission of Opportunity Zones. The mission, and the reason people like me put this in law in the first place, was to get all this private capital that’s out there and put it into the poorest communities in the country and use it to revitalize those areas. And so, that means you have to partner with local, on the ground, poverty-fighters and groups that will help these funds to revitalize the people within them. It’s job training and jobs and we want it to go from just real estate, which we knew real estate would be the first wave of investment, but we want to go to retail, light-manufacturing, and other employment-density industries to come into these areas.
And sure, there will be allegations of “tax shelters,” I guess I would say, but the point of this is we want the tax shelter in the poorest communities so people put their money in these areas. So, we really believe that this idea has great potential to bring a lot of capital to the poorest communities in rural and urban America, and to revitalize. What we need to do is make sure that on the ground it is executed well, and that the investors themselves understand and mind their mission, which is to revitalize these communities.
Q. There’s another issue facing American cities which is substance abuse, whether it is opioids, heroin, or all kinds of abuse. Under your leadership, you shepherded a lot of legislation around these issues, what advice would you give to local leaders as money is coming to the cities to deal with substance abuse?
A. It was amazing how fast this problem sprung up. If you asked somebody in 2006, what an opioid was in Congress, they probably wouldn’t know what you’re talking about. This problem came so fast.
We put the biggest, single response to a drug epidemic in place ever. It really started with President Obama’s Administration and we finished this last session. The quick answer [for cities] is to come up with evidence-based solutions so when you’re deploying this capital and these dollars in your communities, it is going to programs that have rigorous statistical oversight. That, and track your evidence so that you can show what works and demonstrate that you can have good success rates.
So again, at my Foundation, we want to focus on evidence. One of the laws I passed with Senator Patty Murray was the Evidence Act, which promotes evidence-based policy on poverty programs to figure out how to measure what works and to be able to release all the data on the poverty programs in a way that respects privacy. This way, you can track the outcome of poverty programs and the same goes for combatting opioid abuse. We want to get real metrics and real data and real evidence on what works and what doesn’t work. That’s the key.
Because when we find programs that have been proven to be successful, then you can replicate and disseminated across the country. Federal legislators don’t want to hear: “Just send more money to this program that anecdotally does this and that.” They are going to want to hear this program has been proven, over these other programs, to be the one that is statistically proven to have the most bang for the buck and that will be more successful.
We now have brand new analytical tools that are being deployed to actually do that kind of tracking and that’s why I say, I think we can really move the needle on some of our biggest persistent problems because of data science we have. We have a newer ability through evidence and data to be able to actually fix a lot of these problems, and that’s the key for fighting opioid abuse. Let’s build models that can work and be replicated using statistics to prove our point.