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Paul Ryan on the ‘Poverty Industrial Complex’

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Due to a surprising series of events, Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan is now Speaker of the House.

Given the range of interparty disruptions that preceded the event, many are wondering what, if anything, he might accomplish. Those questions won’t be answered anytime soon, but if Ann Coulter’s recent criticisms offer any clue, his views on poverty alleviation are a good appetizer to his broader vision for the country.

More recently, Ryan embarked on a series of on-site visits in poor neighborhoods, learning how local leaders, institutions, and enterprises are effectively fighting poverty. Bob Woodson, who hosted the visits, notes that the “focus was on the victories—the miraculous transformations witnessed and redemptions of people—being accomplished against all odds, not on the presence of state, local, or federal policy makers.”

The visits have since been documented in an online video series called Comeback, which chronicles a variety of powerful stories from grassroots “poverty fighters,” who have transformed their communities by combating unemployment, drug addiction, and gang violence.

Although Ryan only appears in the first of the seven episodes, released just last spring, the lessons learned are loud and clear:

As Ryan says:

I think we’ve gotten so swelled up in this fight in Washington…that we sort of forgot about listening to people who are actually making a difference, who are actually fighting poverty successfully, who are showing through the example of their lives how we can do a better job helping people.

…There is a Poverty Industrial Complex that is sort of wedded to the status quo, that wants to keep funding what is being funded, instead of asking basic questions as to whether the premise of these programs is working in the first place…Are we actually getting people out of poverty?

There are amazing grassroots entrepreneurs who are in these communities doing this as a vocation. How do we scale this up? One of the critical principles in a market-based economy is collaboration, and we need to have all levels of society — local government, private sector, community, and federal government — making sure we’re all pulling in the right direction…If we can see more of these stories replicated in other communities, then we can really break the back of poverty, then we can really have redemption in our communities and make a difference.

Ryan has seen and believes in on-the-ground community action and economic transformation. He points out the systemic abuses that pit the powerful against the week and the crippling effects of policymaking that distorts the dignity of man. He takes note of the clear distinctions between authentic, ground-up civil society and top-down, artificial tinkering.

For the range of issues that will fall on the Speaker’s plate, those signposts don’t tell us all, but all things considered, they seem to me a pretty solid start.

For more stories of how impoverished communities are seeing victory through local enterprise and discipleship, see the rest of the Comeback series and Acton’s own PovertyCure, in which Woodson makes an appearance.

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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