CLEVELAND — Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan said Wednesday that, "in this war on poverty, poverty is winning" and he called for a retooled approach to help the 46 million people who are living in it.
In a speech in politically crucial Ohio, Ryan said he and running mate Mitt Romney would work to help the one in six Americans in poverty climb into the middle class and help keep those already in the middle class on solid financial footing. But he offered no specific or new policy proposals for how they would achieve that.
"In this war on poverty, poverty is winning. We deserve better. We deserve a clear choice for a brighter future," said Ryan, a congressman from Wisconsin who also is chairman of the House Budget Committee.
"Many of those living in poverty today were in the middle class just a few years ago. We can help them regain the ground they've lost," he added.
Yet Ryan criticized existing anti-poverty programs for spending too much with too few results.
"Just last year, total federal and state spending on means-tested programs came in at more than one trillion dollars. How much is that in practical terms? For that amount of money, you could give every poor American a check for $22,000," he said. "Instead, we spend all that money attempting to fight poverty through government programs."
"And what do we have to show for it?"
A spokesman for President Barack Obama, Danny Kanner, said Ryan's speech "existed in an alternate universe. Unfortunately for Mitt Romney, no matter how they couch it, their agenda is extreme."
Kanner added that, "The American people understand that Mitt Romney would take us back, and no change in rhetoric in the campaign's final weeks can change that."
In his speech at Cleveland State University, Ryan said success can't be counted in dollars and cents.
"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," Ryan said.
The answer, he said, is education.
"Sending your child to a great school should not be a privilege of the well-to-do," Ryan said. "Mitt Romney and I believe that choice should be available to every parent in our country, wherever they live."
Ryan's visit to Ohio comes as he and Romney are putting new emphasis on winning this state's 18 electoral votes in the Nov. 6 election. Without a win here, Romney and Ryan would have to sweep the other in-play states to win the election.
To that end, Ryan sought with the speech to connect with moderates, independents and even blue-collar Democrats who are frustrated with Obama's term.
"Whatever your political party, this nation cannot afford four more years like the last four years. We need a real recovery," Ryan said to applause. "Mitt Romney? This is a man who is uniquely qualified and ready to deliver this recovery. Why? Because he understands how an economy works and what it takes to make it grow."
In Cleveland, where boarded-up businesses dot block after block and most voters have an unemployed neighbor, Ryan's message could help fire up solidly Republican voters.
While Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland is located, is among the most Democratic counties in the country and is a place where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 2-to-1, the city's sheer size guarantees a significant bloc of Republicans that Romney will need if he is to compete in the state, which has become a linchpin of his electoral strategy.
Ryan also promised that a Romney-Ryan administration would protect safety-net programs for the poor while overhauling benefits for wealthier people who might not necessarily need Social Security in their later years.
Ryan spoke using a teleprompter, a rare prop for a politician who can tick through budget policy details with little prodding. The formal address was one of the few speeches he has delivered since joining the GOP presidential ticket in August. He has preferred to use his skill as a campaigner to connect with voters in a way that Romney seems to struggle with.
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