The Wisconsin congressman – who is Catholic – has faced criticism from numerous poverty relief groups over his recent budget proposal, which would cut funding levels of several prominent social aid programs.
Ryan rejected accusations that he believes the poor should be left to "fend for themselves." Rather, he argued that he believes in "true compassion and upward mobility" based on "real reforms for lifting people out of poverty."
A country's compassion is not simply measured by how much the federal government spends, he said, calling for Americans to "take a hard look" at the federal government's approach to poverty in the last 50 years, which he described as "centralized, bureaucratic, top-down."
This system has caused problems, he said, leading to dependency and harming families and communities. These problems became so apparent that by the 1990s a major welfare reform law was "passed by a Republican Congress and signed by a Democratic president," he noted.
Ryan argued that the reforms were successful, leading to lower welfare enrollment without increases in hunger or poverty. Millions of Americans achieved greater levels of independence, while employment levels for single mothers rose and child poverty rates fell more than 20 percent in four years.
Due to their success, the congressman asserted, these reforms should be applied to other anti-poverty programs as well.
"In most of these programs, especially in recent years, we're still trying to measure compassion by how much government spends, not by how many people we help escape from poverty," he said.
In the past year, Ryan said, the federal and state governments spent the equivalent of $22,000 per poor American on need-based programs. Yet one in six Americans remains in poverty, and the number of food stamp recipients has increased by 15 million in recent years.
Ryan promoted helping those in poverty by more efficiently using funding and giving states more power to tailor anti-poverty programs to fit "the unique needs of their citizens."