In his speech today at Cleveland State University, Representative Paul Ryan (R–WI) laid out a vision for reforming the nation’s approach to poverty.

“With few exceptions, government’s approach has been to spend lots of money on centralized, bureaucratic, top-down anti-poverty programs,” Ryan stated. “The mindset behind this approach is that a nation should measure compassion by the size of the federal government and how much it spends.” This has “created and perpetuated a debilitating culture of dependency, wrecking families and communities.”

He’s right. Since the “War on Poverty” began five decades ago, the federal government has spent nearly $20 trillion (adjusted for inflation) on what is now a welfare system consisting of over 80 programs. Total annual spending is now approaching $1 trillion. See our newly updated chart: (continues below chart)

Tragically, this massive welfare state has been a driver of dependency. Today, 100 million Americans—roughly one-third of the U.S. population—receive aid from a government welfare program (not including Social Security, Medicare, or unemployment insurance).

As Ryan noted, in the 1990s Congress passed the historic welfare reform law, inserting work requirements into the largest federal cash assistance program. This was a huge success.

“[W]e saw welfare enrollment drop dramatically, as millions of our fellow citizens gained new lives of independence,” Ryan said. “We saw child poverty rates fall over 20 percent in four years—and we saw employment for single mothers rise.”

But these reforms are at risk. In July of this year, the Obama Administration announced it would remove work requirements from welfare reform—the very element that made the law such a success.

Additionally, as Ryan explained, “The welfare reform mindset hasn’t been applied with equal vigor across the spectrum of anti-poverty programs.” Indeed, only a few of the dozens of the federal government’s welfare programs include any type of work requirement. And thanks to the Obama Administration, now even fewer will.

“In this war on poverty, poverty is winning. We deserve better,” Ryan noted. “The short of it is that there has to be a balance—allowing government to act for the common good, while leaving private groups free to do the work that only they can do.”

As Ryan explained, it is necessary to build on the successes of the 1996 welfare reform. This means restoring work requirements and expanding them to other welfare programs, such as food stamps, one of the largest and fastest-growing welfare programs. Fighting poverty effectively also means allowing civil society to thrive.

“What is government’s duty when it comes to the institutions of civil society? Basically, it is to secure their rights, respect their purposes, and preserve their freedom.”

He pointed out the good work of community grassroots leaders such as Bob Woodson, founder of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. His programs have helped root out crime and violence in some of the nation’s most troubled communities. He also recognized Dr. Marva Mitchell of Ohio’s Revival Center Ministries International, “who has been ministering to people in the inner cities for decades,” along with the Reverend Willie Peterson, whose NewBirth Project “has helped almost 200 ex-offenders gain and maintain employment.”

He told the story of another grassroots leader, Brian Wade, who not only opened a homeless shelter but moved his young family into the shelter for seven years to be able to more fully dedicate themselves to the people they and other volunteers aimed to help.

These are just a few examples of many grassroots leaders across the nation who are doing similar work to help transform the lives of those in poverty. Rather than simply providing a handout, as government programs do, these grassroots leaders are able to address the unique needs of the individual—and material poverty is more often a symptom rather than the cause.

Government’s massive and ever-expanding welfare system has failed to help the poor. Its ever-increasing costs are unsustainable. It’s time to change course. Ensuring that welfare promotes self-reliance rather than dependence and allowing civil society to fulfill its roll in assisting those in need is crucial to promoting the well being of the nation’s most needy and to ensuring the strength of society.