Exactly 50 years ago tomorrow, then-President Lyndon Johnson delivered a State of the Union address in which he declared a “war on poverty.” It quickly proved effective – as Michael Tomasky noted yesterday, LBJ aide Joseph Califano found that “the portion of Americans living below the poverty line dropped from 22.2 percent to 12.6 percent, the most dramatic decline over such a brief period in this century.” A concerted government effort reduced poverty rates by 43% in just six years.
But the political winds soon shifted and the “war,” such as it was, became a lower priority with fewer resources. For a generation, Republicans have taken it as a given that efforts to combat poverty were a failure, though they usually neglect to mention that the “war on poverty” faltered when the nation lost interest in fighting it.
Very recently, however, interest in addressing chronic American poverty has worked its way back into the political conversation. Even Republicans whose agenda is hostile towards struggling families at least say they’re concerned. We talked a few weeks ago, for example, about House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) rhetoric on poverty, and the Washington Post reports today that the GOP in general wants to “move beyond the rhetoric of past campaigns and focus on specific policies showing the party would be effective on behalf of the poor.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) will give a speech Wednesday that aides said will lay out changes to federal programs to help people climb out of poverty permanently. In the weeks to come, Rubio also plans to introduce ideas to make it easier for mid-career adults to go back to college or learn new job skills at vocational schools.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the 2012 vice-presidential nominee, has been traveling to impoverished areas and meeting with community organizers. He plans to address poverty in an interview with NBC’s Brian Williams on Thursday.
A third potential GOP presidential candidate, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), is also putting a renewed emphasis on the poor, traveling to Detroit to pitch a plan to revitalize urban centers through “economic freedom zones.” Paul has given his message on income inequality an ideological edge – mixing lofty, empathetic language with anti-government broadsides.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who has been visiting urban schools, will give a speech Wednesday promoting school choice as a way to address poverty. And Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) has proposed increasing the child tax credit as a means of blending social conservatism with anti-poverty policies.
At a certain level, those concerned with the poor may be tempted to feel some satisfaction with the conversation. For Republicans to acknowledge the issue of poverty at all may seem like progress, just so long as one looks past every relevant policy detail.
But to take the debate seriously is to confront and consider those details carefully. The vast majority of federal Republican policymakers, including those preparing speeches on poverty this week, oppose extended unemployment benefits, which we know have helped keep struggling Americans out of poverty. These GOP lawmakers also oppose raising the federal minimum wage, which we also know is incredibly powerful in combating poverty. They also support sharp cuts to food stamps, which would take food from the mouths of low-income families.
And these Republicans oppose Medicaid expansion and the Affordable Care Act, which offer a lifeline for families hovering at the poverty line.
Against this backdrop, prominent GOP policymakers intend to promote tax breaks and privatization schemes as some kind of revamped compassionate conservatism with a Tea Party twist. How is this any different from the agenda these Republicans have pushed for years? It’s not, but it’s being repackaged as concern for the poor, and we’re apparently not supposed to notice the difference.
A renewed debate over poverty is a welcome development, but let’s make sure the discussion is grounded in reality.
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