McKay Coppins' new profile of Paul Ryan, which focuses on Ryan's recent attempts to explore the issues around poverty, has aggravated some Democrats by treating the congressman's interest in the topic as sincere. Republicans, meanwhile, might not care for ways the piece paints Ryan as uncomfortable, even clueless, as he tries to make sense of poor people's worlds.
Me, I think the most fascinating figure here isn't Ryan but Bob Woodson, the man who's been serving as Ryan's guide to the inner cities. Woodson is an old civil rights activist whose decentralist, neighborhood-based approach to public policy has allowed him to make connections on the right—he even had a post at the American Enterprise Institute for a little while in the late '70s and early '80s—but who doesn't fit the standard profile of a "black conservative." (Indeed, the one time I met him, it was at an event with a rather left-wing vibe.) He's an independent-minded man whose commitment to poor people's well-being is undeniable; he clearly sees this as a chance to get a high-profile Republican to adopt some of his issues, whether or not that politician is deeply commited to the cause.
But that adoption process can be tricky. A few months ago I blogged John McClaughry's comments contrasting the conventional GOP approach to poverty ("Republicans typically do not understand what life is like in a lower-income or minority community, and are uncomfortable with spontaneous grassroots efforts which seem to them to be potentially subversive of the existing order") with the view from the ground ("People at the grassroots, faced with collective problems, usually want the tools, resources and opportunities to solve their problem themselves," a perspective that frequently leads them to "view government and other institutions as part of the problem"). In Coppins' piece, Ryan comes across as a man who may be trying to break free of that old Republican frame of reference but has trouble getting his head around the grassroots point of view. One passage in particular embodies the dynamic:
"I plagiarize your sayings all the time," Ryan tells Woodson as we drive. "Like, we have a poverty management system for the benefit of the managers."
"It's provider-driven," Woodson says.
"Provider-driven," Ryan repeats. "Not outcome-based."
Woodson nods, and supplies an example. "There are issues that are very pedestrian but very important," he tells Ryan. "Like, helping people like this keep more of the money that they earn. For instance, my daughter lives in Costa Rica. It costs me practically nothing to call her. It costs me a dollar a minute to call to federal prison."
Woodson waits for a response, but none comes, so he reiterates the point. "These families pay a dollar a minute, Paul."
"Just to call into prison?"
"Yeah!" Woodson says. "I mean, there's a huge rip-off of people in prison, families of people in prison. I have to give my credit card to a company and they come and tell me, 'You have $100 on your account, you have talked for X number of minutes, this is what's left on your card.' And it's about a dollar a minute. I'm telling you, it's crazy!"
"Geez," Ryan mutters.
For a moment, it seems as though this will mark the end of the conversation, but Woodson keeps pressing. "So, that is something, Paul, that we really need to look into. It would reach thousands and thousands of families around this country."
As it turns out, the Federal Communications Commission last year actually banned price-gouging by private companies that provide telephone service for inmates, though prison reformers remain concerned that the same shady practices could be applied to email access and video chat services. But Ryan isn't aware of that now, and while he clearly wants to move on, Woodson seems intent on pushing him just a little bit harder, making him just a little bit more uncomfortable.
"I mean, this is the kind of issue that politicians just don't pay attention to," Woodson says.
"Or even know about," Ryan adds.
"But it would have a profound impact if you were to come out and get interested in advocating for fairness to these families to say they need to keep more of the money they earn."
"That's why we spend so much time on these marginal tax rate issues," Ryan offers, weakly.
Bonus link: An old Reason story about Woodson.