It's not surprising that Ryan, who got his start working for Jack Kemp and William Bennett at Empower America, sees the world this way. Though it's a total secret to members of the press and the Democratic Party, conservative intellectuals have been grappling with the problems of poverty in America for several decades and have arguably advanced more reforms (including school choice, charter schools, enterprise zones and community policing) than liberals have. Some of those reforms, such as those adopted by Rudolph Giuliani in New York, profoundly improved the lives of the poor by, among other enhancements, making their neighborhoods far safer.
Still, the popular perception of Republicans as the party of the rich has been reinforced by the party's opposition to tax hikes (always characterized by the press as "even for the wealthiest") and by the Democrats' relentless spin. Six in 10 respondents to a December Bloomberg poll said Republicans were too concerned about protecting the rich. A McLaughlin poll from 2011 found that 88 percent of likely voters considered a candidate's position on poverty to be important in determining their vote.
If Republican politicians do begin to focus more on poverty, as Ryan recommends, they will have the field to themselves. Democrats no longer talk about the poor.
Barack Obama began his career as a community organizer. In 2007, he excoriated George W. Bush for failing those in "vast swaths of rural America" and in inner cities "who cannot hire lobbyists" and "cannot write thousand dollar campaign checks." The government, Senator Obama said, "cannot guarantee success and happiness in life," but can "ensure that every American who wants to work is ... able to find a job and able to stay out of poverty."
The anti-poverty talk was missing from the 2012 campaign. It was all about the middle class. Perhaps that's because Obama's first term created so very much more poverty. There are more poor people in America today than at any time since the Great Depression. There were 32 million Americans collecting food stamps in 2008. Now that figure is 47 million. Spending on food stamps doubled between 2007 and 2011.
Unemployment remained stubbornly high throughout the Obama first term leading many to abandon the search for jobs altogether. In 2008, 7.2 million Americans were getting Social Security disability payments. Today, it's 8.7 million, an increase of 20 percent. A normal increase due to population expansion would have been 4 percent. Obama blamed his predecessor, but the steep decline in labor force participation didn't begin until six months into Obama's term. Forbes magazine calculates that if long term discouraged workers, those who've dropped out to collect disability payments, and those working part time because they cannot find full time work were counted, the real unemployment rate would hover around 22 percent.
Medium household incomes fell by more than 8 percent during the Obama first term, an average of $3040 per household, and income inequality grew compared with the Bush years. For African-Americans, the drop in household income was even more dramatic -- 11.1 percent.
Obama talked about the middle class in 2012 for two reasons: 1) because his record left him vulnerable on the subject of poverty, and 2) because Democrats believe that Americans do not like poverty programs. "People are much less inclined to support something that goes toward a targeted population than something that they can benefit from," Rachel Black of the New America Foundation told Politico. This is why Democrats fight tooth and claw to block reforms of Medicare and Social Security that would decrease benefits or increase taxes for wealthier recipients. They believe that the middle class would stop supporting the programs if they were at all means-tested.
But most voters do not disapprove of TANF, Medicaid, Head Start and dozens of other programs aimed at the poor.
Ryan is right to see an opportunity for Republicans in talking about poverty. It might improve the Republican brand in the eyes of all voters. It opens a door to talk about the best anti-poverty program -- economic growth, which has been conspicuously absent under Obama. It also highlights a fact the Democrats want to bury: All Americans are poorer as a result of Obama's policies, but the poor are hit hardest.