By Russell Berman - 01/08/14 05:47 PM EST
Democrats and Republicans marked the 50th anniversary of the “war on poverty” by offering contrasting assessments of its legacy and competing visions for the right policies to help the poor.
President Obama, while noting that the work is “far from over,” proclaimed former President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s 1964 campaign a success story, noting that the poverty rate has fallen by 40 percent since the 1960s and hailing social safety net programs like Medicare and the earned income tax credit.
Congressional Republicans took a starkly different view, pointing to the tens of millions of people still in poverty — despite trillions of dollars spent — as a glaring example of the failure of a philosophy rooted in government spending.
“Five decades and trillions of dollars after President Johnson waged his war on poverty, the results of this big-government approach are in,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said in a speech delivered from the ornate Capitol room named for Johnson.
“We have four million Americans who have been out of work for six months or more,” he said. “We have a staggering 49 million Americans living below the poverty line, and over twice that number — over 100 million people — who get some form of food aid from the federal government.”
Five years after a deep economic recession, the gap between the rich and the poor has become a central political concern in Washington and across the country. Obama and congressional Democrats have cited rising income inequality to argue for progressive policies, including repeated extensions of unemployment insurance and an increase in the minimum wage. And they have fought back against Republican opposition by casting conservatives as disconnected from the struggles of the poor and the middle class.
In a floor speech Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called Republican opposition to extending lapsed emergency jobless benefits “cold-hearted.”
Rubio and other Republicans, meanwhile, have sought to reframe the concern of income equality, which they often associate with class warfare, into a push for greater economic mobility.
“Raising the minimum wage may poll well, but having a job that pays $10 an hour is not the American dream,” Rubio said. “And our current government programs offer at best only a partial solution. They help people deal with poverty, but they do not help them escape it.
“The only solution that will achieve meaningful and lasting results is to provide those who are stuck in low-paying jobs the real opportunity to move up to better paying jobs.”
Rubio proposed combining all federal anti-poverty programs into one “flex fund” overseen by a single agency, and then turning over implementation to the states. He said it would be “the most fundamental change to how the federal government fights poverty and encourages income mobility since President Johnson first conceived of the war on poverty fifty years ago.”
Across the Capitol, members of the conservative Republican Study Committee in the House said the government needed to focus on policies that create more jobs, rather than expanding social welfare programs.
“This administration has no real focus on job creation,” said Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. “It really is focused on how long checks are being received.”
Camp has pushed to reform the unemployment insurance program by adding more requirements of recipients and giving more flexibility to states in implementation.
“I think the program as is should not be continued,” he said.
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.”
Rubio was one of a number of young GOP leaders to outline their anti-poverty agendas this week. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) delivered a speech to the Brookings Institution that, while narrower in scope, declared the movement for greater school choice “the surest way” to end the cycle of poverty.
“The fact is the federal government’s approach to fixing our schools has been too slow, too sporadic and too ineffective,” Cantor said as he called for an expansion of charter schools and voucher programs. “And while we wait, we are losing generations of kids.”
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) plans to outline his anti-poverty vision on Thursday during a televised NBC News panel at the Newseum in Washington.
—Justin Sink contributed.