“In this war on poverty, poverty is winning,” said Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan on Wednesday afternoon. “We deserve better.”

Speaking to an audience of supporters at Cleveland State University, Ryan, who's known for his wonky disquisitions on the federal budget, offered a comprehensive case for a vibrant civil society that cares for its poor on a local and personal level.

“Americans are a compassionate people, and there’s a consensus in this country about our fundamental obligations to society’s most vulnerable,” Ryan said in prepared remarks. “Those obligations are not what we’re debating in politics. Most times, the real debate is about whether they are best met by private groups, or by the government; by voluntary action, or by more taxes and coercive mandates from Washington.”

Ryan pointed to Brian Wade, an audience member, as a local example of excellence in this vision of personal charity.

“When Brian felt called to open a homeless shelter in Elyria, he didn’t just volunteer his time there,” Ryan said. “He and his wife moved their family, a baby and two young ones, into the shelter and lived there for seven years.” The audience gave Wade a round of applause, and Ryan continued.

“He and his volunteers didn’t just provide hot meals and clean clothes, though that alone would have been a lot. At his youth outreach center, he didn’t just give kids a safe place to come in from the streets. In all of this, Brian gave himself. He didn’t show people in need the right path—he walked it with them, not just as a guide, but as a friend.”

That got another round of applause, as did what Ryan said next.

This good man, and others like him, are witnesses,” he said. “And the needy people who have encountered them feel a presence greater than just one compassionate soul. What’s really at work here is the spirit of the Lord, and there is no end to the good that it can inspire. Government can't replace that.”

Ryan also made an argument against the government-centered vision espoused by Democrats.

“With a few exceptions, government’s approach has been to spend lots of money on centralized, bureaucratic, top-down anti-poverty programs,” Ryan said. “The mindset behind this approach is that a nation should measure compassion by the size of the federal government and how much it spends. The problem is, starting in the 1960s, this top-down approach created and perpetuated a debilitating culture of dependency, wrecking families and communities.”

He praised the bipartisan welfare reform of the 1990s but said that “mindset” hasn’t been applied to other government programs that aren’t currently succeeding.

“Just last year, total federal and state spending on means-tested programs came to more than one trillion dollars,” Ryan said. “How much is that in practical terms? For that amount of money, you could give every poor American a check for $22,000. Instead, we spend all that money attempting to fight poverty through government programs. And what do we have to show for it? Today, 46 million people are living in poverty. That’s one in six Americans—the highest poverty rate in a generation.”

Ryan even explained how Obamacare’s mandate that all employers provide health insurance that covers birth control hurts the poor.

“Take what happened this past January, when the Department of Health and Human Services issued new rules requiring Catholic hospitals, charities and universities to violate their deepest principles. ‘Never mind your own conscience,’ they were basically told. ‘From now on you’re going to do things the government’s way.’ This mandate isn’t just a threat to religious charities. It’s a threat to all those who turn to them in times of need. In the name of strengthening our safety net, this mandate and others will weaken it.”

Ryan continued. “The good news? When Mitt Romney is president, this mandate will be gone, and these groups will be able to continue the good work they do.” That line brought the audience to its feet for an extending ovation.

“I am a proud Republican,” said Ryan. “Our party does a good job of speaking to the part of the American dream that involves taking what you’re passionate about and making a successful living from it.”

But, Ryan added, there’s another side to the equation: how to deal with those who struggle under the weight of poverty. “My party has a vision for making our communities stronger, but we don’t always do a good job of laying out that vision,” he said.

By addressing poverty with a seriousness that many Republicans don’t, Ryan echoed his mentor, the late New York congressman and Health and Human Services Secretary Jack Kemp. Appropriately, Kemp’s son, Jimmy, introduced Ryan. I asked the younger Kemp if he believes Ryan is taking on his father’s role in the GOP as a vocal leader on issues of poverty and upward mobility.

“I think he’s always had it,” Kemp said. “He [Ryan] understands that…without a growing economy and with a huge deficit, then people at the local level, they have a tougher time doing what they do. So, I think he sees the whole picture. I think he’s always cared about these issues.”

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