Seeking to lay groundwork for a rewrite of the social safety net, Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan said Wednesday the federal government must stop measuring its programs by dollars spent and instead grade them by how many people are lifted out of poverty.
The Wisconsin congressman said he and the Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, don’t want to gut the programs, but he argued that the safety net is crippled by government rules and misplaced priorities that mean more people are falling into poverty and staying poor longer.
“In this war on poverty, poverty is winning,” said Mr. Ryan, who as chairman of the House Budget Committee is seen as one of the top Republican thinkers on how to rewrite federal spending programs.
He shied from specific new policies, instead calling for a rethink of the way poverty-fighting programs are conceived.
Mr. Ryan pointed to new research last week that said federal and state governments combined spent more than $1 trillion on programs targeted to help low-income Americans in 2011.
“For that amount of money, you could give every poor American a check for $22,000. Instead, we spend all that money attempting to fight poverty through government programs,” he said. “And what do we have to show for it? Today 46 million people are living in poverty. That’s 1 in 6 Americans. It’s the highest poverty rate in a generation.”
He did lay out a few specifics, though they chiefly amounted to rolling back some of President Obama’s actions.
He said Mr. Romney would reverse the president’s new rules that allow states more flexibility on welfare work requirements, and said a Romney administration will halt the health care law’s requirement that religiously affiliated institutions such as Catholic Charities must provide health insurance that includes contraceptive coverage.
“This mandate isn’t just a threat to religious charities. It’s a threat to all those who turn to them in times of need. In the name of strengthening our safety net, this mandate and others will weaken it,” he said. “Here’s the good news. When Mitt Romney is president, this mandate will be gone.”
Danny Kanner, a spokesman for Mr. Obama’s campaign, said Mr. Ryan was espousing an “extreme” agenda.
“The American people understand that Mitt Romney would take us back, and no change in rhetoric in the campaign’s final weeks can change that,” he said.
Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney argue this year’s election is a referendum on broad questions on the size and scope of the federal government. In an interview with The Des Moines Register this week, Mr. Obama called that “the central ideological argument in Washington right now.”
Mr. Romney ran into trouble last month when caught-on-camera comments were released showing him telling donors in a closed-door session that 47 percent of Americans are dependent on government and view themselves as victims.
Mr. Ryan didn’t address that specifically, but he did seem to see the same problems at work in what he called the government’s “centralized, bureaucratic, top-down” approach.