For a politician, Ryan has shown a lot of willingness to revise his proposals in light of reasonable criticism. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
For a politician, Ryan has shown a lot of willingness to revise his proposals in light of reasonable criticism. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Representative Paul Ryan's new anti-poverty plan, released yesterday, is more ambitious than I had expected.

I didn't expect him to tackle criminal-justice reform, for example, but his plan calls for softening mandatory-minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders.

I didn't expect the plan to include higher-education reform, but it has several worthy ideas, from reforming the accreditation process so more innovative schools can emerge to simplifying financial-aid forms.

Many of Ryan's fellow conservatives have said that expanding the earned-income tax credit -- a wage subsidy for low-income workers -- is a better way to fight poverty than raising the minimum wage. Ryan puts some money where his mouth is, specifying ineffective programs he'd like to cut and using the savings for an expansion of the credit. Increasing the minimum wage might well suppress job growth; this expansion, on the other hand, might get more people working.

Ryan's most attention-getting proposal would consolidate a range of federal anti-poverty programs into a block grant distributed to the states. The federal government would merely set a few conditions. Perhaps most important, able-bodied aid recipients would have to work or participate in work-related activities (such as looking for a job). I'm skeptical about how innovative state governments would really be with federal money, but it's a good idea to streamline these programs and add work requirements.

For a politician, Ryan has shown a lot of willingness to revise his proposals in light of reasonable criticism. His ideas for reforming Medicare, for example, have been refined over time. In this plan, too, Ryan has addressed some of the strongest objections to previous versions of conservative ideas. When federal payouts to states have been suggested before, critics have noted that they might leave states and poor people in a bind during recessions. So Ryan's plan includes proposals -- such as tying the amount of aid distributed to the unemployment level in a given state -- intended to make the grants counter-cyclical.

As impressive as the plan is, there are two complementary ideas I think Ryan should propose.

One is to reform the federal-state program that provides health insurance to the poor. He should advocate cashing out most of Medicaid and letting beneficiaries buy insurance plans in the broader market. He should also get more savings out of old-age benefits, speeding up the transition to a new Medicare system and restraining the growth of Social Security. That way his overall budget plan would put less pressure on policies like the earned-income tax credit. I suspect he'd favor both of these ideas.

The bigger question to my mind, though, isn't what Ryan will do next. It's whether liberals will give his good ideas a fair hearing.

To contact the writer of this article: Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net.