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I was wrong to call poor people ‘takers’, Paul Ryan tells Catholic students

Paul Ryan greets members of the audience at Georgetown (AP)

US House Speaker Paul Ryan has said he was “just wrong” when he generalised four years ago about poor people being “takers”.

After a speech at Georgetown University, a Jesuit-run institution, Ryan, the House Speaker and a Catholic, was asked by Rachel Hirsch, a graduate student: “What prompted you to reconsider your previous statements about poor people as takers?”

“I was just wrong,” Ryan replied. “I didn’t mean to give offence … There are people who get knocked down in life. And to lump an entire category of people in one broad brush is wrong, I think.”

He added that the only way to deal with his previous rhetoric was to “own up to it. Just fess up and fix it.”

It is not the first time that Ryan has regretted his distinction between “makers and takers”. In a 2012 speech, he said that government benefits were creating “a majority of takers versus makers in America”. That same year, the Georgetown faculty sent an open letter to Ryan when he came to speak at the university. Ryan was then Mitt Romney’s running-mate in the presidential election.

The academics accused Ryan of a “misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programmes for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few”. They said Ryan was “profoundly misreading” Catholic teaching by ignoring governments’ responsibility to help “communities and local governments face problems beyond their means such as economic crises, high unemployment, endemic poverty and hunger”.

In his 2012 speech, Ryan replied to the academics, saying: “The work I do as a Catholic holding office conforms to the social doctrine as best I can make of it.”

Ryan and his staff have recently been working with charitable organisations, led by Catholic Charities USA, to showcase programmes that aid poor families, homeless individuals, the sick and the elderly. The charities have stressed that their work would be impossible without some government support.

Ryan said he wanted to “make my case” for supporting the Republicans. “I’m going to go out on a limb and assume the thought had not occurred to most of you,” he told the Georgetown students. “So here’s how I’d sum it up: The America that you want is the America that we want – open, diverse, dynamic. It is what I call a confident America, where the condition of your birth does not determine the outcome of your life, where we tackle our problems together so that all of us can thrive.”

Ryan’s one-hour talk was billed by him as an effort to reach out to millennials. Political observers described it as an effort to soften his image in preparation for a 2020 run for the presidency. Ryan has ruled out running for president this year.