By: AIF Staff
Washington, DC – In March at the American Enterprise Institute, former Speaker of the House and American Idea Foundation President Paul Ryan spoke with a dozen high school students from Janesville, Wisconsin as part of the “Discovering Democracy” program.
Every year, AP government students from Ryan’s hometown of Janesville engage in an intensive, academic study of pressing public policy issues. During his time in Congress and after, Ryan has addressed these students and answered questions about their research topics.
In addition to answering questions about fixing our immigration system and reducing student loan debt, Ryan discussed his ongoing work in reforming poverty programs and expanding upward mobility through evidence-based policies and strategies.
Excerpts of Ryan’s conversation with this year’s Discovering Democracy students follow.
On the American Idea Foundation’s Efforts to promote Evidence-Based Solutions:
“My foundation, which is located in downtown Janesville right on Main Street, is focused on “poverty economics” and a big goal of the Foundation is promoting and expanding one of the last laws I wrote, the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act.
“When I was head of the House Budget Committee, I had put this giant proposal together that was kind of like one of those comprehensive immigration bills. I put that proposal together to get the conversation going on fighting poverty. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to pass that massive bill so when I was Speaker of the House, we broke that bill up into a dozen pieces. We got Opportunity Zones through the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. We passed Social Impact Bonds into law.
“And a big piece that we passed was the Evidence Act, which started with the creation of a bipartisan commission and a law that I passed with Patty Murray, a Democratic Senator from Washington State. The goal with the commission was to determine how we could integrate and release data from federal poverty programs in a privacy-compliant way so that government and researchers could get access to this data and determine what works and what doesn’t work.
“In the 50-year War on Poverty, we’ve spent over $15 trillion but we have never really measured whether we were actually really making a difference. We saw that basic, material poverty rates improved because the federal government just gave people money but in terms of upward mobility, in terms of people getting themselves out of poverty, we didn’t do that well.
“What we have learned is that the federal government measures success based on effort, inputs, and dollars spent. It doesn’t measure success based on outcomes and results. We learned that the government never has really had a tool to do this, let alone one to share with the private sector, so we created a Commission to get ideas on how to do precisely that. The Commission came back with their findings and those findings were largely what we put into the Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018 and it was the last thing I passed in the beginning of 2019.
“The result is that the government now has to release all this data on government programs, namely poverty programs, so that researchers in academia, foundations, and within the rest of government can get the data on our poverty-fighting programs to track and measure the evidence of what works and what doesn’t work.
“My Foundation’s primary goal is to make sure this law is well-implemented and executed. It is also focused on advancing those evidence-based strategies that have been demonstrated to show real results. One way we’re doing that is through a user-designed, evidence-based clearinghouse that evaluates the research done on various child welfare strategies around the country. The goal of the clearinghouse is if you want to solve a particular problem, say homelessness, and you’re in Janesville, Wisconsin, you can use this clearinghouse to determine what has been tried in other cities and localities around the country.
“The clearinghouse would have all the evidence, all the literature, and all the program information to show what works and what doesn’t work, so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Our goal is to take models that are successful, scalable, and replicable and encourage people to expand them.”
On modernizing the safety net to better assist Americans in-need:
“I’m actually working on a proposal with some scholars here at AEI, which will be released in a book later this year, that is focused on fixing the social safety net so it works better and so it utilizes 21st century technologies.
“Our goal is to smooth out some of the problems in our existing system. The way Americans get benefits from the government is from a mixture of county government, state government, federal government agencies. None of these agencies can coordinate with one another, all of them have different kinds of benefit requirements and cut-off limits which makes it really hard for a person to navigate.
“What’s worse is that when you have a person who is going through life and they start rising and doing well, making money, and obtaining an education, the government has all these arbitrary benefit cliffs that can end up knocking you back further than you would otherwise be if you continued to receive the existing benefits. This is because these programs are sort of “one-size-fits-all” and they don’t comport with an individual’s situation or circumstances or even their family structure.
“We are saying that this approach isn’t working. There are a lot of good charities and organizations out there that have proven solutions – like using wrap-around benefits and a case-management “navigator” who works with a person for years to help them walk their way out of poverty. This approach utilizes the government and fills in some of the benefit gaps with private, charitable funds. Groups like Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, the Salvation Army are doing amazing work so let’s break up the government being a single-source provider of benefits, which it doesn’t do very well, and let’s let these other groups get more involved and have resources more closely connected to outcomes….
“What we’re doing here at AEI is we’re designing a concept of digitizing the social safety net so that you can have a personalized benefit structure for people in poverty. You can have a benefit structure, maybe even one with digital money, that is customized so each person has a different set of resources to meet their unique situation, whether it’s a single mom with three kids or a single guy who may have addiction problems, job problems, or transportation problems.
“Because the government treats everybody the same, it’s a cookie-cutter approach that doesn’t work well. If you digitized the social safety net, you could eliminate a whole bunch of bureaucracy and customize benefits based on a person’s issues. You could also algorithmically phase the benefits off as people rise out of poverty so that each step out of poverty makes financial sense for that person. It sounds far-fetched but I really think you can revolutionize the social safety net with digital technology and programmable money.”