Ryan and Rubio on the Promise of American Opportunity

Rich Tucker /

At Tuesday night’s Kemp Foundation Leadership Award Dinner, Representative Paul Ryan (R–WI) and Senator Marco Rubio (R–FL) talked about ways to promote opportunity, battle poverty, and get the country back on track.

Both men aim to further successful reforms triggered by former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and longtime Heritage Foundation Distinguished Fellow Jack Kemp, who died in 2009 after having dedicated his life to promoting the power of free markets and economic opportunity.

The problem with poverty, Ryan pointed out, is that “when Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty in 1964, he predicted we would eliminate poverty in 35 to 50 years. Here we are, 48 years later, and poverty is winning. We deserve better.” That doesn’t mean gutting the social safety net; it means making certain that poor people don’t get caught in it.

“We need a vision for bringing opportunity into every life—one that promotes strong families, secure livelihoods, and an equal chance for every American to fulfill their highest aspirations for themselves and their children,” Ryan said. “It calls on government to encourage, not displace, the efforts of free people to help one another. It calls for a stronger safety net—one that protects the most vulnerable and promotes self-reliance. It calls for an end to the chronic inequalities in our education system. And finally, it promotes economic growth through free enterprise—because nothing has done more to lift people everywhere out of poverty.”

For his part, Rubio, recipient of this year’s Jack Kemp Foundation Leadership Award, noted that “millions of Americans worry that they may never achieve middle-class prosperity and stability and that their children will be trapped as well with the same life and the same problems.”

We should mend the safety net, Rubio said, and provide “a way to help those who have failed to stand up and try again, and of course to help those who cannot help themselves. But these programs must be reformed to enhance family stability, financial opportunity, education, and a culture of work.”

The good news is that the American dream isn’t dead. “I am still convinced,” Rubio said, “that the overwhelming majority of our people just want what my parents had: a chance, a real chance to earn a good living and provide even better opportunities for their children.”

Americans are compassionate and understand the need for a safety net for the few who struggle as they seek to improve their lives. But we can’t accept a country that traps people at the bottom. There should also be a ladder of opportunity for them to climb. That’s the promise of the American dream.

Or, as Ryan put it, “the belief that everyone should have the opportunity to rise, to escape from poverty, and to achieve whatever your God-given talents and hard work enable you to achieve.”