POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jan 9, 2014
WASHINGTON » Sen. Marco Rubio says the American dream has become "unattainable." Sen. Mike Lee says reforming government benefits programs should be the country's "first priority." And Rep. Paul D. Ryan says the government safety net has "failed miserably."
Fifty years after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty, the message from Republicans in Congress is that the government has foundered in its efforts to address the problem.
"While we have programs in place that help deal with the pain of poverty, they don't deal with the structural problems," Rubio, of Florida, said in an interview.
Referring to President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress, he added, "I just think their thinking on this is stale and old and doesn't really address the magnitude of the problem."
Mindful of polls that show many Americans see them as detached from or indifferent to the hardships faced by the people most affected by the recession and slow recovery, Republicans have begun to speak publicly on the issue of poverty and to propose their own, more market-based solutions.
The effort is meant both to cast the party in a more compassionate and inclusive light in an election year, and to push for an overhaul of programs that Republicans argue have made poverty more tolerable without improving mobility or opportunity.
But at the same time that the party is shifting its focus to poverty, many Republicans are pushing for deep cuts to food assistance programs and unemployment insurance, while 11 million Americans are jobless and poverty rates remain elevated in the wake of the recession.
Democrats argue that budget cuts and other Republican initiatives would make the sting of poverty more acute.
"Republican leaders set out to make their party more appealing — or at least less insulting — to middle-class and working Americans," American Bridge, a liberal advocacy group, wrote in an email to supporters on Wednesday. "The real war on poverty in America remains their endless attacks on the middle and working class."
Several Republican lawmakers are using the anniversary of Johnson's declaration on Wednesday as a marker, and are planning to roll out specific plans to overhaul the nation's antipoverty programs in the coming weeks and months. Rubio, for example, will give a speech hosted by the American Enterprise Institute on overhauling anti-poverty programs and improving income mobility.
At the forefront of the effort is Ryan of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Budget Committee and the party's nominee for vice president in 2012. After spending much of the last year traveling to poverty-stricken areas across the country and meeting with local leaders, he is planning to address the issue in a television interview this week and at a summit on social mobility at the Brookings Institution next week.
It is not entirely surprising that Ryan would seize on the issue. His political mentor was Jack Kemp, a former Republican congressman and Cabinet secretary under President George H.W. Bush who was one of the party's strongest advocates of addressing poverty by overhauling government safety-net programs.
Ryan has said that Kemp, who died in 2009, refused to accept poverty as a permanent way of life and sought to offer the poor a hand up. "When he saw people striving, he was on their side," Ryan said in 2012 at an awards dinner in Kemp's honor. "He didn't believe we all belong to some fixed class or station in life."
The Clinton-era overhaul of the welfare program that cut its rolls but spurred many low-income mothers to work is often held up as a model for reform today. "It is a spectacular result," said Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, while noting that in the 1990s, when the rules were changed, businesses were adding jobs at a strong pace. "The fly in the ointment now is that jobs are a real problem."
Republicans are offering a series of proposals to help more Americans rise out of poverty: attaching or reinstating work requirements to safety-net programs, streamlining federal offices, improving training and education initiatives, and offering tax breaks to the needy.
Rubio wants to make it easier for adults to go back to school and learn vocational skills. He said he would like to see "alternate accreditation routes," so that a bachelor's degree from a four-year college was not the only way to achieve a high-paying job.
"For a lot of people, that's just unattainable," he said. "They're working full time; they have a family. An alternate would be programs that exist already that combine work experience, internships online and course work into an alternative that employers will accept, as well as something that's just as good."
Lee of Utah is considering introducing legislation that would give states more control of Medicaid funds and, possibly, the Head Start programs for early childhood education. He also plans to introduce a bill next month to "streamline" existing anti-poverty programs.
"There is no reason we ought to have 79 means-tested federal government programs," Lee said in an interview. "There's also not a good policy reason to reward states for higher spending instead of improved results. I think one of our very first priorities has to be to get our existing federal programs under control."
Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader, has also put forward a number of ideas, and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has proposed the creation of "economic freedom zones" with reduced taxes and regulations.
In many areas with chronically high rates of unemployment, Paul said in a white paper, government largesse has sapped the economy of homegrown strength and instilled dependence. In the paper, he promised "relief from government policies and the opportunity to escape poverty."
Democrats have often argued that such Republican proposals seek to cut the safety net under the banner of reforming it, and that the economy needs stronger supports in the wake of the recession.
"I am all for the idea of work as a critical pathway out of poverty," said Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and a former Obama administration official. "It just doesn't work if there aren't enough good jobs. It's that simple."
Bernstein added, "Cutting budgets and insisting on work requirements is antithetical to that reality."
Republicans acknowledged that, with unemployment still at 7 percent and 1 in 6 Americans living in poverty, they needed to make a stronger case that their reforms would help struggling families.
"There's also a recognition among a lot of Republicans that we have not done a good job messaging conservatism, messaging the fact that we are conservatives not in spite of our concern for the poor, but because of it," Lee said.
Income inequality and the plight of working families have been central economic refrains for Democrats for years. But Republicans are hoping to make the case that the sluggish economy and the pain many families are feeling are evidence that Democratic initiatives have failed.
"The president has defined poverty and income inequality as the defining issue of our time, and his solution is to raise taxes on wealthy Americans and raise the minimum wage to $10.10" an hour, Rubio said. "That's not a solution. $10.10 is not the American dream. I want them making $50."