House conservatives on Wednesday marked the 50th anniversary of the “war on poverty” by decrying what they said was a failed, government-centered approach to lifting people out of economic despair.
Members of the conservative Republican Study Committee used the milestone of the campaign launched by President Lyndon Baines Johnson to highlight their own anti-poverty efforts that are focused on boosting work and training requirements for welfare programs and giving more flexibility to states to implement them.
Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the committee’s chairman, said the federal government had spent $15 trillion over the half century only to see 10 million more people in poverty than in 1964.
“I think that it shows how failed policies have actually led to more people being in poverty,” Scalise said.
The RSC initiative is being led by Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.), a second-term lawmaker who authored a contentious amendment to the last year’s farm bill that sought to restore work requirements for food stamp recipients from the 1996 welfare overhaul. Democrats blamed that measure for torpedoing the initial version of the farm bill, which Republicans subsequently split into two pieces to advance.
The effort comes as part of a broader push by senior Republicans to retake higher ground on the issue of poverty after years in which Democrats have painted the GOP as out of touch with the struggles of the poor and the middle class. That dynamic was central to the 2012 presidential campaign, when President Obama and Democrats seized on GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s comments denigrating the “47 percent” of Americans who don’t pay federal income taxes.
Southerland dismissed as “political banter” the perception of Republicans as uncaring, and throughout the Capitol press conference lawmakers emphasized that they wanted to fix, not eliminate, the social safety net.
Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, said the dozens of federal anti-poverty programs should be re-evaluated so that effective ones remain while ineffective programs are discontinued.
“We’re a great nation, and we’re a compassionate nation that has a safety net,” Lankford said, “but we must evaluate all of our programs and what we’re doing to help those in poverty, not by how many are enrolled but by how many graduate.”
The Republicans voiced opposition to a top Obama priority — passing Senate legislation that would extend for three months emergency unemployment insurance.
Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said the administration was too focused on “how many checks are received” and not on how many jobs are being created. He has pushed for reforming the unemployment insurance program to strengthen work and training requirements and to give more flexibility to states.
“I think the program as is should not be continued,” Camp said.