Republicans are laying the groundwork for a policy and philosophical proposal that goes far deeper than cutting government spending on welfare.
In speeches by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida on Wednesday and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin on Monday, GOP leaders used the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty to hint at how they’ll counter Democrats in midterm elections. “This cannot be some box check on some new contract with America,” Ryan said Monday. “This goes to the very heart of the American experiment itself.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty has failed, they say, with nearly 50 million Americans living in poverty today and escaping poverty with hard work no longer a given. Democrats say the government simply hasn’t done enough to fight income inequality. But Rubio said the focus should move past income inequality to policies that give the poor the social mobility to find better-paying jobs.
What are those policies? “I’m afraid I don’t have all the answers, but a little humility in Washington might be a good start,” Ryan said.
Although short on specifics, Ryan’s and Rubio’s treatises share some core points. Both say raising the minimum wage and repeatedly extending unemployment benefits fail to address the root causes of a complex problem. That complexity, they say, necessitates a targeted and decentralized approach.
Rubio said anti-poverty programs have been bogged down by federal bureaucracy and could be run better by states. He proposed consolidating poverty programs and giving the money to states to address their own unique needs. On the federal level, he called for a wage subsidy for low-wage workers as a way to create incentives.
Ryan, on the other hand, said he is attracted to a British experiment that combined six programs into one payment, replacing abrupt benefit cut-offs that penalize work with a gradual decline in payments. On the local level, he plans to convince everyday Americans that fighting poverty involves more than donating and paying taxes. Government programs, he said, crowd out civil society: “There’s only one way to beat poverty, and that is face-to-face.” How he plans to do that remains to be seen.
The Republican agenda is anything but clear. Ryan is developing his plan independently of Rubio, and neither politician named the programs he wanted to consolidate. There’s not much unity in policy yet, despite clear philosophical agreement. For example, Rubio proposed eliminating the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to pay for the more immediate wage subsidy. Ryan praised the EITC Monday for how it rewards work.
Perhaps because of that lack of unity, reviews of the proposals are mixed. Conservative thinkers have resorted to writing their own analysis of the last 50 years, remaining largely silent on Ryan’s and Rubio’s ideas.
Liberals have not been so silent. Ryan Cooper of the Washington Post criticized the proposals’ lack of detail. He accused the Republicans of being too stuck on welfare reform. Focusing on individual responsibility and incentives is a “worthy goal,” he said, but Republicans aren’t considering the fundamental structural changes in the economy that contribute to income inequality.
But Ryan and Rubio both point to the same fundamental problem: Poorly designed welfare programs helped contribute to those structural changes. And one structural change that liberal pundits consistently gloss over is the breakdown of the family. As Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation wrote last week, just 6 percent of children had unmarried parents in 1963: “Today the number stands at 41 percent. As benefits swelled, welfare increasingly served as a substitute for a bread-winning husband in the home.”
Ryan put it this way: “Over the past 50 years, [government] has built up a hodgepodge of programs in a furious attempt to replace these missing links … in society that just can’t be replaced by anything other than family.”
Starkly contrasting Ryan’s goal of removing barriers for today’s families without further replacing fathers was his Democratic counterpart at Monday’s Brookings Institute event. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand outlined a five-part, women-focused anti-poverty plan that includes paid medical leave and access to universal pre-K and childcare. But through her commitment to radical feminism and her direct dismissal of a question about the need for fathers, Gillibrand implied eroding a father’s importance may even be desirable: “When women lead this fight, we will end poverty in America.”
Gillibrand used explicit, sweeping generalizations that everyone on government assistance needs it and that all Republicans want to do is play games with the poorest: “All we hear on the other side is that those on government assistance are somehow scamming the system or lazy. I’ve never met a lazy child who’s hungry, have you?”
But those who listened to Ryan and Rubio beyond sound bites heard both say that the principle of a safety net is important. They just don’t believe the current methods in the War on Poverty are working. Today’s programs only do so much, Rubio said: “They help people deal with poverty, but they do not help them escape it.”
In other words, many government programs have protected people from destitution, but those same programs do little to encourage self-sufficiency. Republicans are still struggling, though, to clearly define what they mean by “the War on Poverty is not working”—or at least to get that definition to stick.
And they don’t have long before they’ll need to sell their message to voters. President Barack Obama is expected to make inequality the story of the 2014 election, starting with his State of the Union address on Jan. 28. Without details from Ryan and Rubio, Republicans are playing from behind.
But with the philosophical groundwork Ryan and Rubio are laying—and the presidential aspirations both likely have—they may be thinking further ahead than November.