House Speaker Paul D. Ryan is using the occasion of the first State of the Union Address since he took his GOP leadership position to signal that tackling poverty and other urban ills will remain atop his agenda as he attempts to rally his fractious party around a common set of goals.
Ryan has invited a long list of anti-poverty advocates to join him for Tuesday night's address, including an advocate of a welfare overhaul considered one of Ryan’s mentors, a Texas pastor who ministers to former gang members and a former homeless woman who founded a nonprofit group for homeless youth.
“We care about opportunity, upward mobility,” Ryan said in a Monday interview on NBC’s "Morning Joe." “We care about every person in in this country, making sure that they have their ability to find the American Dream.”
The focus on what he called, “front line poverty fighters,” was the latest of several public gestures Ryan has made to draw the country’s attention to the issue since he assumed the House speakership late last year.
The discussion, outlined in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Jan. 8 by Ryan and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and a weekend forum for GOP presidential candidates, played out against the backdrop of an increasingly divisive presidential nomination and questions about the party’s future.
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Ryan’s calls for a conservative focus on issues such as poverty, criminal justice and tax reform stand in stark contrast to the personality-driven campaign for GOP presidential nomination. It is also a departure from former Speaker John A. Boehner, who was frequently criticized for his failure to articulate a vision for the party.
“It’s a way for Paul Ryan and the Republican Party to carve out some space in the inequality debate,” said Joshua C. Huder, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. “It’s important for them to do that if they want to remain relevant. Democrats have been framing Republicans as driving inequality. If it works, it could be a foil that could combat that picture.”
Ryan guests include prominent welfare reform advocate Robert Woodson, the head of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise , who organized Ryan’s 2014 national “poverty tour” of low-income neighborhoods.
“To have someone in his office validate a grass-roots approach on poverty fighting is pretty amazing and pretty impressive,” Woodson said. “Paul gives my grass-roots leaders a level of respect and validation I think they deserve. There are very few people left or right of center who genuinely respect these people. Paul does and in turn, they validate him.”
Ryan also invited several community leaders he met through Woodson. They include Omar Jahwar, who runs a church for former convicts, gang members and drug addicts in Dallas. Jahwar said he found Ryan’s devotion to urban problems refreshing.
“When we talk, he’s not talking political,” Jahwar said. “He’s the kind of guy who wants to hear and find out where we have some consensus.”
Jahwar described himself as politically independent and said he was excited to see the State of the Union, partly because it would be president Obama’s last.
Ryan's other guests include several founders of nonprofit and religious groups that aim to combat homelessness, poverty, gang violence and drug addiction. They include Joanna Wynn, of Kenosha, Wis.; Rev. Melvin Hargrove, of Racine, Wis.; Bishop Shirley Holloway of Washington, D.C.; and Antong Lucky, of Dallas, Texas. In addition, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser is attending the speech with a ticket from Ryan's office.
The emphasis on poverty echoes a theme Ryan raised in a speech shortly after he took the speaker's gavel.
Rebecca Vallas, director of anti-poverty policy at the liberal Center for American Progress, applauded Ryan for recognizing local activists. “It’s great to hear the GOP talking about poverty,” she said. “It’s hard to dispute that Paul Ryan and a lot of his GOP colleagues have really upped their game when it comes to talking about these issues.”
But she said Ryan’s past poverty proposals, combined with his comments in recent weeks about repealing Obamacare and defunding Planned Parenthood, indicate that he would likely cut federal safety net programs.
“If you want to eliminate or slash aid programs at least be honest about it instead of cloaking it in falsely compassionate rhetoric,” she said.
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