By: AIF Staff
Washington, DC – In the latest edition of The Catalyst, a quarterly publication produced by the President George W. Bush Institute, American Idea Foundation President Paul Ryan discusses the importance of keeping the American Dream alive.
As part of an interview with the Bush Institute, Speaker Ryan details the work being conducted by the American Idea Foundation and elaborates on how policymakers can embrace success solutions being implemented in communities around the country. Ryan also shares his thoughts on how the Biden Administration can successfully work across the aisle on common-sense issues that expand economic opportunity.
Speaker Ryan’s full conversation with The Catalyst is accessible here and some excerpts of the discussion (edited for length and clarity) follow:
How can policymakers ensure America remains the land of opportunity?
“This is basically what I have dedicated my post-Speakership to. My whole foundation is designed on this and the work I do with the American Enterprise Institute and at Notre Dame is all focused on just this topic…. I think there are specific policies and efforts that need to be deployed because right now, there are whole generations of Americans, millions of Americans who just don’t see that the American Dream is there for them today. I think the good news in this story is that it’s right around the corner if we put the right policies and the right efforts in place to get at this.
“I frankly believe we’re on the cusp of some really good breakthroughs in poverty policies and policies designed to ignite upward mobility. If we can accomplish these goals, get these policy achievements, and change these mindsets, I really believe we can reignite this core, glorious idea that the condition of your birth doesn’t determine the outcome of your life. This idea that if you work hard, you can make it. You can you can be the best version of yourself and that the opportunity of the American Dream is alive and well and most importantly, everybody sees that it’s there for them and that they can achieve it.”
Why do public policies focused on expanding opportunity matter?
“What I really believe we can do is scale up solutions to criminal justice and just get ourselves into a virtuous cycle where we’re actually repairing things. I think Opportunity Zones is another area where we are using private capital to flood the zone in the poorest of the poor communities. It’s something that I helped put in the tax reform to revitalize – not residential properties, but revitalize communities. This is another area, and we spent a lot of time at the American Idea Foundation on this, where we can really move the needle on poverty and get capital to capital-starved areas, so that we can create opportunities and upward mobility.
“All of these efforts that we’re just talking about now have one thing in mind behind them: It’s never too late for redemption. There is always hope. And in this country, you can make a great and better life for yourself and you can leave your kids better off than you were. There are too many people who don’t believe that these days, but I really fundamentally believe if we apply ourselves to these policies that are just coming online and do more, we can reignite the American idea so that it’s really bought into…. I see things like this as helping bring us together to revive civil society and get us all focused on making sure that one another does well. And so, that to me is an inspiring movement, that to me is the politics of hope, inclusion, and inspiration. It’s what I’d like to see more of frankly.”
Why is the American Idea Foundation focusing on ideas outside of Washington, DC?
“I think the best thing that can be done is to go and find those diamonds in the rough, those programs out there that are really making a difference, learn from them, and then build, scalable, recordable models that can be replicated.
“Let’s take [an example] in Texas. Let’s take Catholic Charities in Fort Worth. I spent a pretty good deal of time with Catholic Charities Fort Worth. They have, in my mind’s eye, one of the best anti-poverty programs and they have a case-management program called the Padua Project. The Padua Project is a program that this wonderful lady named Heather Reynolds, who now is the Executive Director of Notre Dame’s Lab of Economic Opportunity (LEO), founded. The Padua Project, which is you get a Catholic Charities caseworker who is attached to no more than say 20 families to help them set up a plan to get out of poverty. It takes not just six months or eight months; it takes three or four or five years. They work with them, building a plan that is erected with incentives and disincentives, carrots and sticks, to troubleshoot and activate all the resources that are available, so that each person can work themselves out of poverty and build a better life for themselves….
“We have run a randomized clinical trial (RCT) on Padua and we have concluded it makes an enormous difference. So, setting up this sort of case-management program in the right way, with the proper incentives and controls is something that now we’ve sort of scientifically proven. We built an evidence model. We built procedures and practices. This could be built and rebuilt and replicated across the country and really move the needle on helping get people out of poverty. There’s just one example of something that has nothing to do with Washington, DC or the federal government.
“Catholic Charities has got the secret sauce. They figured out that it can be replicated. We figured out how to replicate it and now what we’re trying to do is amplify this effort. This type of program and these success stories can be seen again and again and each place will customize it a little bit, but there’ll be a base from which to operate from. So, charitable efforts to get people out of poverty aren’t having to go back and reinvent the wheel every time. They can pick up where others left off, and really, produce successes.”
How is the American Idea Foundation working with policymakers to advance pro-growth policies?
“This is the other thing that my foundation is working on, though COVID has presented a little bit of a problem, but I’ve spent a lot of my time touring poor communities around the country. I went with my friend, Bob Woodson, for a couple of years touring the poorest of the poor communities, just on listening tours and holding listening sessions. I’m trying to train other policymakers to do the same. It’s one of the things the American Idea Foundation is working and doing, which is getting people out of the comfort zones and out of their Congressional Districts, going into the poor communities. If you represent a rural area that’s not poor or a suburban area that is wealthy, go to these poor areas, listen, learn, observe, take away and build relationships, friendships, and alliances, and then go make a difference. That’s something that I was able to do and I feel I’ve really benefited from it.”
Why work on fighting poverty and expanding evidence-based policies after leaving Congress?
“It’s some of the most gratifying work that I did when I was in government, I always found myself — and when you’re Speaker of the House, you have to deal with national security and that was actually a big project of mine, but I always found on my discretionary policy time, I found myself going back to this issue. It’s just what really moves me.
“I’m a cradle Catholic, so this is a big part of your upbringing. It’s a big part of Catholic social teaching, so it’s something that I just always believed in and I just found that every time I had a little bit of spare time from managing members to scheduling legislation, this is where I wanted to spend my time. This is the legislation that really helped, that was fulfilling….
“And so, I decided after my speakership that I wanted to go work on making sure these laws were well executed. I want to make sure that these laws stand the test of time and get executed well. We didn’t write the laws as perfectly as I would want to, but that just means there’s more follow-up and more follow through. The American Idea Foundation is basically focused on this topic and in particular, it is focused on executing these laws and making sure that they’re properly designed.”
How can the Biden Administration successfully advance reforms that help the American people?
“They should start on incremental reforms that are confidence-building measures, that are bipartisan in nature, stay between the 40-yard lines and bang out a bunch of reforms. I know [President Biden’s] doing Executive Orders that appease the base. I don’t like those Executive Orders but that’s just what they’re going to do. Especially with impeachment coming down the path, that’s going to inflame the situation and it’s going to make it much more partisan, so stay within the 40-yard lines and bring a bunch of incremental reforms that get bipartisan buy-in.
“I pray to God that they keep the filibuster and my guess is [Republican Leader Mitch McConnell] will be able to get a deal to do that…. but bang out a bunch of incremental, bipartisan reforms as confidence-builders, that show the institutions are strong, that the country can still work, that we can reduce the rhetoric, and just start banging out some compromises and some reforms that fulfill the theme that Joe Biden put out in his inaugural speech. I was sitting not too far away from President Bush. The inaugural speech was pitch perfect, but, you know, words must be followed with actions. So, the actions that should follow the words are bipartisan, incremental reforms.”
How can America move forward, together, during these tough economic times?
“I think the biggest mistake that President Biden could make is using reconciliation to try and rip up the tax code that we just fixed. And look, I understand that progressives who play class warfare would like to do that but they will slow down economic growth. The tax reforms that passed were way overdue. They made us internationally competitive. They kept jobs here at home. They created more investment, but most importantly, the kind of an economy that these tax reforms created was the fastest wage growth among the lowest income-earners in the country.
“[President] Joe Biden will be able to get a nice recovery out of this. I think he needs to go easy on the regulatory footprint. I know that he’s going to go after Carbon and I think that’s regrettable but if [President] Joe Biden focuses on confidence-building measures before partisan measures and doesn’t go after the tax code, he will inherit an economy built for growth, particularly coming out of COVID and that will give people jobs. You have a lot of unemployed people, a lot of people in debt. You have to have fast economic growth to get people back into jobs and into the workforce, and to get wage growth, the policies are there, [President Biden] just needs to allow it to happen.”