By: AIF Staff
Washington, DC – Earlier this week, American Idea Foundation President Paul Ryan was a featured guest on theHardly Working podcast. The podcast, hosted by Brent Orrell and produced by the American Enterprise Institute (where Ryan is a visiting fellow), focuses on the future of workforce development and on how policymakers can help individuals meet the diverse needs of the 21st century economy.
During the podcast interview, Speaker Ryan and Orrell discussed using evidence-based solutions to break through partisan gridlock, the amazing accomplishments of the Nurse-Family Partnership program, and other ways to successfully fight poverty.
Listen to the entire interview here or by clicking the icon below. Highlights of the conversation, edited slightly for clarity, follow.
“After I retired as Speaker of the House, I wanted to focus on some of the things I really cared about which are poverty and strategies to improve our fight against poverty. I wanted to help go after poverty’s root causes and help break the cycle of poverty. There are different kinds of poverty, but I wanted to focus on intergenerational poverty and it’s just a perfect segue to what we are talking about which is the last law I wrote in Congress. It’s this thing called the Evidence Act.
“It’s a bill that I did with Senator Patty Murray. We founded this [Evidence-Based Policymaking] Commission and we got the idea from Jim Sullivan at Notre Dame, economists at their Laboratory for Economic Opportunities, and Raj Chetty, an economist at Harvard…. We put Ron Haskins from the Brookings Institution in charge of it because I wanted to make sure this was not seen as some Republican thing, but rather just a good thing. The Commission gave us its results, we took them and put them in a bill and got it through Congress….
“Now, academic researchers can look at the data and see what works and what doesn’t and then get the government to actually measure the results of programs, the effectiveness of programs, and whether something works or not. [It helps] get the muscle memory built in the minds not just of the bureaucracy, but of policymakers and of philanthropy to focus on evidence-based policymaking, so that we can bypass the ideological loggerheads….
“So, my foundation is basically focused on what I would call center-right ideas for fighting poverty and restoring civil society and reproducing upper mobility that we aspire to as Americans. It’s called the American Idea Foundation and I’d say the “American Idea,” or at least what we think of, is that the condition of your birth should not determine the outcome of your life.
“America is the only country founded on natural rights. It’s a beautiful thing. We are the only country that’s founded on an idea and it’s the job of Americans to pass this on to every generation.
“My foundation is trying to do that by making sure that we’re [using] evidence as a policy-making barometer and as a tool in government and out of government. Then [we’re trying to support] those things that connect the private sector, the public sector, and the philanthropic sector to get capital into poor communities, to get the private sector into poor communities.”
An evidence-based success story: The Nurse-Family Partnership program
“I’ve been to the Nurse-Family Partnership programs in Kenosha and Racine and I was just down in rural South Carolina last month touring [their program]…. The Nurse-Family Partnership is where a nurse partners with an expectant mom and they become very close. They become friends and the nurse effectively acts like a mother or a mentor – that’s probably a better word, a mentor to the expectant mother to help her figure out what you have to do to have a healthy pregnancy. The nurse says these are the vitamins, this the diet, these are the things you don’t do, these are the things you do, and here’s how you get prepared. No one else would tell [these mothers] this and then after they’ve had the baby, they help them for [two] years… with all those other things in infancy and it has huge impacts on a child’s development.
“The program has been subjected to randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and we’ve been running evidence and analytics on this program for years. I first got involved with it in the George W. Bush Administration which grew the program. President Obama was enamored with it and they expanded it and then President Trump saw it and he reauthorized it. So, it grew under Bush, Obama, and Trump, three very different Presidents.
“It’s a program that just has really good evidence that proved [its concept]. It’s teaching women who are having babies…. how to be good moms and how to raise those kids and how to do so at a really critical stage of development from pre-birth to three years old.
“It’s extremely successful. Those nurses and those moms become extremely close, and they help these moms really ratchet themselves up the ladder of life, up the escalator of upward mobility, and get them on a really good path, putting their life together so the mother is better off. And if she’s going to be better off, we all know and it’s really clear that her child is going to be better off.
“This is an example of a government program and of civil society working to actually alter people’s trajectory and change society for the better…. For moms who’ve never had a baby and who didn’t know how to raise a baby, there is a good program that actually works. And if we prove that it works, then let’s fund it and let’s take the money from the programs that have been proven not to work and use that so we don’t actually net increase spending.”
Focusing on outcomes, not dollars spent, to better fight poverty:
“For lack of a better phrase, the War on Poverty got gripped by an ideology and because of that ideology, we started to measure success by throwing money at problems. We measured success by inputs like money or creating new programs.
“In many ways, they created this notion of “just let the government do it” if we’re trying to fight poverty and trying to get people out of poverty. [It was a notion of] don’t worry, pay your taxes, the government has got this figured out. [The government] will create programs to deal with this, as if that is a perfectly decent substitute for communities, for mediating institutions, for people helping fix problems person to person or community to community. They decided big is better. [They decided] the federal government is more efficient and they can just design programs and therefore materialistically [the government] can solve this problem.
“It blew up in our faces. It created a lot of dependency and it backfired. Materially taking people out of poverty, from a technical perspective by throwing money at the problem – sure, you can do that — but have we really created a society enriched with upward mobility, with people living the best versions of their lives and becoming the best versions of themselves? Did these policies do that? No.
“I think what is missing is the sense of community, the sense of solidarity, the mediating institutions that civil society provides. We displaced people participating in helping the lives of one another…. You can’t just substitute [government] for the private sector and for economic growth, wage growth, competition for labor, innovation, opportunity, social capital and all that comes with it.
“I think we went down this path in the War on Poverty of just getting rid of the secret sauce that makes all this stuff work and substituting all of it for more programs, more money, more dependency and [we’ve seen] predictable results.”
Strengthening civil society in an era of digitization and polarization:
“We are in real trouble right now because of digitization. I think we are living more artificial lives on our electronic devices and it is actually bringing atrophy to these mediating institutions — our churches, our civic organizations, the place and space where we live our lives, the space between our government and ourselves.
“And there’s also capital. Obviously, you have to have investment. You have to have organizations that promote civil society and all these things that help people realize their humanity and that work with one another to do that….
“The best thing I can come up with is we have to revitalize those institutions and revitalize civil society. We have to revitalize those non-government organizations and, since we’re becoming less religious as well, it is these non-government organizations that connect us and give us a sense of value and pride in helping other people. They give us this common good sense of community. If you’re raising kids — and I’ve got two that still have to get through high school, you’re really involved in this stuff but once you’re done with that, everybody leaves and that’s what’s sort of happening in society today.
“I wish I could say there’s a government program or a bill with the capacity to fix this but there really isn’t a way other than to have a good, healthy, growing economy so people have discretionary income, so they have more hours at home, working on these parts of their community.”