Paul Ryan’s Exit Interview: Rethinking How a Great Society Helps People Rise

Drawing from the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, the outgoing speaker of the House says breaking the cycle of dependency requires the federal government to support customized solutions developed at the local level.

Speaker Paul Ryan
Speaker Paul Ryan (photo:

WASHINGTON — The federal government has a vital role in helping people fight poverty “person to person, soul to soul,” according to Speaker Paul Ryan.

However, Ryan also believes the federal government can do a much better job — not by providing direct services, but through partnership with more localized governments and private charities that are close to the people they serve and can provide customized solutions that fit their needs.

Ryan, a Catholic Republican from Wisconsin, is retiring from Congress at the end of his term. In this interview with the Register, Ryan explains the Catholic social vision, built on the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, behind his approach for how the federal government can give people a hand up — not a handout — from poverty.   

What role do you believe that government has in the care of the poor and lifting persons and communities in our society out of poverty? 

The way our federal poverty-fighting system is designed now, government is displacing private investment and local charity by dominating everything. Instead, the government should provide resources and tools to local units of government, the private sector and groups, so that they have the tools they need to do this work in their communities.

We are also responsible for creating an economic climate where every man and woman has the opportunity to work. That is a critical piece of fighting poverty and one of the reasons our recent tax law was so important. We are seeing a strong economy, with millions of jobs that need to be filled, and now we need to figure out how to encourage more people to come into the workforce.

How do you think Catholic social teaching’s principles of subsidiarity and solidarity could be better applied to how the federal government currently provides assistance and services to the poor?

These teachings show we believe in the dignity of every human person, and we are called to care for one another. Specifically, this means helping the poor and doing it at the community level. We have 80 different federal government programs, spending nearly $1 trillion a year annually to fight poverty. This approach began more than 30 years ago and signaled to the American people that poverty was a problem the government alone would solve. This has actually ended up isolating and marginalizing the poor.

We need to restore these concepts and support the people in our communities, fighting poverty person to person, soul to soul.


Why do you think the model can be changed to provide more or better services and solidarity with the poor? Some have expressed concern that Catholic charities and local governments — urban, suburban, rural, reservation — may not have the capacity to provide what the federal government is already doing now.

We’ve seen that, for anti-poverty programs to be successful, they need to be customized and focused on empowering the individual. So, while federal benefits are well-intentioned, the one-size-fits-all approach is not working. We still haven’t figured out how to really get at the roots and break the cycle of poverty.

We need to take those approaches that are working at the local level, like casework management systems, and channel federal resources into replicating those successes on a bigger scale. The government should be evaluating the effectiveness of programs and ensuring accountability, but we need to shift the structure so that it’s not harming or displacing efforts to help the poor.


How would you also address the concern that if Catholic Charities or similar charitable organizations deepen their involvement with the government, they risk even more government interference in their mission and how they live their beliefs?

The federal government should work in partnership with philanthropy and the private sector to find the most effective solutions to alleviating poverty. But federal government support should not interfere with their core values and missions. In fact, we are trying to cut regulations that put up barriers for organizations trying to work on these issues.


Would a move toward greater subsidiarity provide an opportunity to address current flaws in the welfare system that have undermined marriage and family unity? For example, observers have long noted a “marriage penalty” in welfare programs that keep men and women from marrying and forming stable families.

We need to change the way benefits are designed so that they are always encouraging upward mobility. People make rational decisions, and so we need to make sure that, within our system, it makes sense for them to work, to join the labor force. This is one of the reasons customization at the local level — that concept of subsidiarity — is so important. Local units of government, along with groups doing work on the ground, can help make sure all the incentives are aligned so that our programs are successful.


Do you intend to propose a concrete legislative plan soon that would implement your vision for government to work better through charities to serve the least and most vulnerable in our society?

The tax bill we just passed included two things that will help: empowerment zones and social-impact bonds. The first gives states the ability to identify up to 25% of their lowest-income census tracts for designation as empowerment zones, and then private investors receive incentives — focused on the taxation of capital gains — to provide financing in those areas. This encourages private investment and generates economic growth in communities that need revitalization — ones that otherwise may not receive this type of investment. They will help residents of these areas reap the benefits of growth, providing more people with opportunities to be lifted out of poverty.

Social-impact bonds are a public-private partnership supporting poverty-fighting programs through a “pay-for-performance” model, where private investors finance initiatives and are repaid based on certain metrics of success. Both of these programs help draw private capital to areas that need it within a results-based framework.

I also worked on a bill with Sen. Murray [Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.] to begin transitioning the federal government’s poverty-fighting system from being inputs-based to one that emphasizes outcomes and measures success.

We’re trying to consolidate existing programs and return power to local groups. The House is currently working on legislation to pair work requirements with welfare programs to help people move back into the labor force. And we’re trying to foster competition based on results to make sure we’re supporting the most effective programs that fully bring people out of poverty. These are the things we’re trying to put in place, in addition to policies that spur economic growth and expand opportunities.

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.