Keeping the American Dream Alive

A Conversation with former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan

Even though Paul Ryan has left Washington, D.C., he is still passionate about public policy. From reducing poverty, to being smarter about the use of data in government, to immigration reform, former Speaker of the House Ryan continues to believe that the right policy mix can bring the American dream within everyone's reach.

Paul Ryan served as the 54th Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, from October 2015 to January 2019. Before being elected Speaker, he served as Chairman of both the House Ways and Means Committee and the House Budget Committee. He was first elected to Congress at age 28 and represented Wisconsin’s 1st District for two decades. During his time in Congress, Ryan focused on a variety of measures to revive the American dream, from reforming the criminal justice system and combatting poverty to reforming the tax code and promoting economic opportunity.

Today, Ryan is back in his home state of Wisconsin, where he started the American Idea Foundation, promoting evidence-based policies to help ensure opportunity for more Americans. He also serves on the faculty at the University of Notre Dame and is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

He talked recently with Catalyst Editor Brittney Bain about what he has been working on since he left Washington, his advice for policymakers now, and how to keep the American dream alive. Below are excerpts from their discussion, which has been edited for length and clarity.

How can we ensure that America is truly the land of opportunity, and that the American dream is accessible to all?

This is basically what I have been dedicating my post-speakership work to. My whole foundation is designed on this, the work I do at the American Enterprise Institute, and the work I do at Notre Dame, are all focused on this topic of asking how do you keep the American dream alive, or the “American idea” as I describe it?

Right now, there are millions of Americans who just do not see that it is there for them today. I think the good news is that it's around the corner if we put the right evidence-based policies and the right efforts in place. I believe we are on the cusp of breakthroughs in poverty policy and policy designed to ignite upward mobility. If we can accomplish these goals, get these policy achievements, change these mindsets, then I really believe we can reignite this glorious idea that the condition of your birth does not determine the outcome of your life, that if you have worked hard, you can make it, and that opportunity and the American dream is alive and well.

That involves a wholesale approach to tackling poverty, its root causes, its persistent problems, and multigenerational poverty. I think we are on the cusp of a whole new wave of reforms that can actually help tackle this in a real, profound way.

I believe we are on the cusp of breakthroughs in poverty policy and policy designed to ignite upward mobility. If we can accomplish these goals [...] then I really believe we can reignite this glorious idea that the condition of your birth does not determine the outcome of your life.

So, let’s talk about these “evidence-based” policies. Can you explain what they are and how we know if they’re working?

In my last two years as Speaker of the House, I basically focused on getting these policies passed into law. These are policies I've worked on for many, many years. I developed them when I was head of the House Budget Committee.

But, let’s back up. Long before that, I spent a lot of time as young staffer with Congressman Jack Kemp, touring poor communities around America, and advocating for ideas then that we thought would really lift the poor. Fast forward, I got elected to Congress and spent a lot of time on fiscal and economic issues.

When I was the head of the Budget Committee, we were coming up on to the 50th anniversary of the war on poverty, and I thought that was a good time to do an assessment. We had spent roughly $15 trillion in the 50-year war on poverty, a very noble effort, but I wanted to know what kind of progress had been made. It took us about a year to do this giant research project. There wasn’t an accounting list or place in the budget to reference, so we scrubbed every budget line item, every GAO report, every Inspector General report, every kind of analysis we could find, to determine what is it that we do at the federal level, and is it working or not?  

Long story short, we barely moved the needle. We helped material poverty in many ways, but we really didn't snap or break the cycle of poverty. The problem with this approach is it did not focus on outcomes and results. In the end, there are lots of reasons why, but these 20th century programs were written at a time when we did not have the tools or the means to measure the effectiveness of government programs, the outcomes, or to compare the evidence.

We helped material poverty in many ways, but we really didn't snap or break the cycle of poverty. We spent about a trillion dollars on almost 100 programs, and the problem with this approach is it did not focus on outcomes and results.

I decided to look at how we can move the war on poverty from an input-based, effort-based metric system to an outcome-based, evidence-based metric system.  I spent a lot of time with economists on this, including Raj Chetty at Harvard and several others. Lo and behold, we got the idea for a commission to scrub the way federal poverty programs work, and to be able to release the data that is compiled by these programs, to convert these programs, to evidence-based policy.

I didn't want to make this a partisan effort, and it should not be a partisan effort. I asked my friend Patty Murray, a progressive Democrat from Washington state who was the Senate head of the Budget Committee then, to join me. We had done some budget deals together, so I asked her to help develop this commission, to figure out how to do this in a privacy compliant way, using data science. We did that, the commission gave us its results, and we put that in a bill.

House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan and Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-WA) announce a bipartisan budget deal, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, at the U.S. Capitol on December 10, 2013. (T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images)

I passed it in the lame duck session in 2018, and it was signed into law in 2019. It's called the Evidence Act, and it does a few things. It releases all the data, in a privacy compliant way, on federal poverty programs so that researchers can glean information, study, compare, and design evidence models. It requires the government to measure its own programs and develop evidence to see if what they're doing works or not. I think this effort will lead to a new phase in social science that we call evidence-based policymaking.

At the American Idea Foundation, we’re building a national database and repository of all the evidence-based policies that have been put out there. Many researchers now are doing this in universities, in the private sector, and in the nonprofit sector, but there is nowhere to get all this information. Once this database is up and running, if you're designing a poverty program in your community, or your church, or wherever, you'll be able to go see what works. We don't want to reinvent the wheel - we want to learn from other people's experiences.

[The Evidence Act] requires the government to measure its own programs and develop evidence to see if what they're doing works or not. I think this effort will lead to a new phase in social science that we call evidence-based policymaking.

At Notre Dame, I'm on the board of a division of the Economics Department called the Laboratory for Economic Opportunity. We run about 75 random clinical trials on poverty programs a year to test what works and what doesn't work. With Notre Dame, our foundation is building this data from all the research that has been done around the country on this front. We really believe we can change the direction in the war on poverty to an outcome-based, results-oriented base. I really think that's going to have a chance of moving the needle.

What about criminal justice reform? What should we be doing there? 

We should track it, and we should be measuring evidence. I voted with Republicans and Democrats for the “tough on crime” late 1990’s mission and we all over compensated. We, frankly, just kind of got it wrong. I think it's important for policymakers to acknowledge if you make mistakes, don't repeat them, correct them.

I've spent a lot of time touring poor communities around the country. I went with my friend Bob Woodson for a couple years, touring the poorest of the poor communities on listening sessions, and I'm trying to train other policymakers to do the same. One of the things our foundation is working on doing is getting people out of their comfort zones. Go to these poor areas, listen, learn, observe, build relationships, alliances, and then go make a difference.

One of the things I learned in doing that in my career was that we screwed up the criminal justice laws. There are better ways of redeeming people, of reducing recidivism, of making sure people pay their debts to society, no two ways about that, but helping people become the best version of themselves after prison, so they can be productive members of their families and of society.

Paul Ryan signs criminal justice reform legislation in 2018. (via Twitter @SpeakerRyan)

That’s where conservatives like me joined forces with people on the left to do criminal justice reform. We looked at the evidence-based prison reforms, incentivizing reforms, and we looked at some real racial disparities in sentencing. And now, we have better laws focused on redemption, on education, on streamlining, and getting people back into society, and we have the Evidence Act to go measure these things. What I really believe we can do is scale up solutions to criminal justice and get ourselves into a virtuous cycle where we're actually repairing things.

I think opportunity zones are another area where we can use private capital to flood the zone in the poorest of the poor communities, to revitalize, not re-gentrify, but to revitalize poor communities. We spend a lot of time at our foundation on this. Where can we really move the needle on poverty and get capital to capital-starved areas so that we can create opportunity and upward mobility?

All of these efforts that we're talking about have one thing in mind behind them. It is 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 just too many people who do not believe that these days, but I fundamentally believe if we apply ourselves to these policies and do more, we can reignite the American idea.

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 just too many people who do not believe that these days, but I fundamentally believe if we apply ourselves to these policies and do more, we can reignite the American idea.

I see things like this as helping bring us together, to revive civil society, and get us focused on making sure that one another does well and rises. That, to me, is an inspiring movement. That, to me, is the politics of hope and inclusion and inspiration. That's what I'd like to see more of, frankly, and I think these efforts are going to help us do that.

You spent more than 20 years in Washington. But do you think there are more effective solutions outside the Beltway?

Oh gosh, yes. Our headquarters is in beautiful Janesville, Wisconsin, but we crisscross the country. 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 models that can be replicated.

Let's take Catholic Charities Fort Worth as an example. I spent a pretty good deal of time with Catholic Charities Fort Worth. They have, in my mind, one of the best anti-poverty programs, a case management program called Padua. They founded the Padua program, which assigns a charity caseworker 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, erecting incentives and disincentives, carrots and sticks, to troubleshoot and aggregate all the resources that are available, so that each person can work themselves out of poverty and build a better life. 

We ran a random controlled trial on Padua recently, and we have concluded it makes an enormous difference. Setting up a case management program the right way, with the proper incentives and controls, is something that now we've proven works. This can be built and rebuilt and replicated across the country.

Paul Ryan meets with Catholic Charities Fort Worth in 2018. (via Catholic Charities Fort Worth)

That’s just one example of something that has nothing to do with Washington, D.C., or the federal government. It's pure Catholic Charities Fort Worth. They got the secret sauce, they figured out that it can be replicated, and we figured out how to replicate it. Now, we are trying to amplify this effort and type of program so that these great examples and success stories can be seen again and again. Each place will customize a little bit, but there will be a base from which to operate, so that charitable efforts to get people out of poverty are not having to reinvent the wheel.

What inspired you to take this on when you when you left the speakership?

It's some of the most gratifying work I did when I was in government. When you're speaker, it's a big juggling act. You have to deal with national security and tax reform, which was a big project of mine. But I always found in my discretionary policy time, I was going back to this issue. It's just what really moved me.

I'm a cradle Catholic. It's 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, thought about, 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 felt fulfilling.

I got a few big laws passed on criminal justice reform, opportunity zones, the opioid epidemic, the Evidence Act, and so I decided after my Speakership, I wanted to go work on making sure these laws were well-executed. We didn't write the laws as perfectly as I would want to, so that just means there's more follow-up and follow-through to do. I basically decided to start the American Idea Foundation focused on this topic, focused on executing these laws, and making sure that they're properly designed.

Immigration is at the heart of the American dream, and yet we have a system that is broken. You know firsthand how difficult it is to try and get comprehensive immigration reform done. What is it going to take to achieve it?

There are two issues that got away from me that I felt so passionately about, that frankly, if we achieve, we'll have another great century in this country. Those are immigration reform and entitlement reform. I won't bore you with entitlement reform. I usually put people to sleep when I talk about that. But immigration reform is enormously important.

In my experience, the problem when you have massive efforts with giant bills is you pull a couple of strings, and the thing collapses under its own weight. So, it's pretty easy for opponents, whatever their motivations may be, to collapse a giant bill effort. My operating theory continues to be you have to bring the bill to the floor in five or six parts. You have to agree upfront, and you need different coalitions for each bill.  

I have been at the altar on this issue three or four times, left at the altar every time, and so it's very frustrating. This will get fixed because it must get fixed. And when we fix it, there should be respect for the rule of law, making sure that people who follow the rules get the preferences, and we should go to a merit type-based system, so that the economy gets what the economy needs. Immigration is a wonderful thing. It's wonderful for culture, it's wonderful for the economy, and it's essential for the future of the economy.

[Immigration] will get fixed because it must get fixed. And when we fix it, there should be respect for the rule of law, making sure that people who follow the rules get the preferences, and we should go to a merit type-based system, so that the economy gets what the economy needs.

I think what President Biden has to do is go back to what I just described, get a framework of an agreement, and make it bipartisan. And if you bring one giant bill, more power to you. Odds are that's probably not the easiest way. But, once and for all, get it done. Frankly, I think he needs to spend his political capital on this.

You’re talking about the new administration. We've also got a new Congress. What's your advice for them, as we look to other challenges and opportunities we’re facing?

They should start on incremental reforms that are bipartisan in nature and stay between the 40-yard lines to get bipartisan buy-in. Use incremental reforms as confidence-builders that the institutions are strong, that the country can still work, that we can reduce the boil of rhetoric, and just start banging out some compromise and some reforms.

Focus on the economy to keep us moving forward. The tax reforms that we passed [in 2017] were way overdue. They made us internationally competitive, they kept jobs here at home, and they created more investment. But most importantly, the kind of an economy these tax reforms created was the fastest wage growth among the lowest income earners in the country, the lowest unemployment rate since 1969.

So, get through the pandemic, get the vaccines deployed, and allow the economy to heal itself. If the president doesn't go after the tax code, he will inherit an economy built for growth, particularly coming out of COVID, where you have a lot of people who are unemployed and a lot of people in debt. You have to have fast economic growth to get people back into the job workforce and to get wage growth. The policies are there, you just have to allow it to happen.

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