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Juan Williams: Republicans must see the light on combatting poverty

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Fifty years ago this month, President Johnson was closing in on his first State of the Union address. The famous speech, delivered in January 1964, kickstarted the War on Poverty.

The war was never won. During this holiday season, it is worth emphasizing that poverty is more than a “Ghost of Christmas Past.”

An incredibly loud, bipartisan chorus of social and political voices, from Pope Francis to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and President Obama are all pointing to very real and current poverty, stirring troubling 21st century images of Charles Dickens’ story “A Christmas Carol.”

In that classic tale, Dickens wrote a fictional jeremiad on income inequality in mid-19th century Britain. The story called attention to high rates of child poverty and hellish working conditions at factories and mines at the cruel heart of Britain’s emerging industrial economy.

Dickens had planned to write a journalistic appeal for a decent welfare system for the “poor man’s child.” Instead he decided on a Christmas novel featuring a greedy businessman, Scrooge, ignoring people in need — especially poor children, most of all a disabled boy, Tiny Tim.

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Today Congress is failing to act on a jobs bill while insisting on more cuts to food stamps and other anti-poverty programs, all to protect the rich against tax hikes. The ghosts of ‘Christmas Past’ and ‘Christmas Present’ are jangling loud chains.

These ghosts speak to disturbingly high poverty rates for today’s ‘Tiny Tim’ population — America’s children.

This Christmas, 22 percent of children in the United States live in poverty, according to the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan. A third of children who are illegal immigrants live in poverty. Sadly, a very similar rate of poverty is seen among black children (38 percent) and Hispanic children (35 percent). Even among the nation’s most affluent racial group, whites, 12 percent of children live in poverty.

It is also estimated that 45 percent of the nation’s children are in low-income families. Earlier this month, President Obama said the current economy makes it near impossible for a poor child to get out of poverty, adding that this situation “should offend all of us — we are a better country than this.”

Time magazine’s Man of the Year, Pope Francis, cast this global economic era in chilling terms when he declared that today “unfettered capitalism,” amounts to a “new tyranny.”

Similarly, Congress’ failure to extend unemployment benefits and willingness to cut federal workers’ pension plans in the budget passed last week is sparking Christmas nightmares over rising income inequality in the post-recession economy.

Income inequality has been hard to ignore in the last month as the stock market hit historic highs while fast-food workers striked, calling for a rise in the minimum wage.

On Capitol Hill, the GOP caucuses in the House and Senate continue to ignore poverty. Instead, they complain America is becoming a “Food Stamp Nation,” with an expanding safety net of social programs they blame on “the entitlement president.”

During the 2012 presidential election campaign, Republican Mitt Romney was put onto the defensive after being caught on a covertly-filmed video speaking about the “47 percent” who see themselves as “victims…dependent on government.” This huge swath of the population, in Romney’s view, was comprised in large part of those who fail to “take personal responsibility.”

Republicans “want to care,” Bruce Bartlett, former domestic policy advisor to President Reagan recently told The Washington Post. “But they’re so imprisoned by their ideology that they can’t offer anything meaningful.”

In the same article, Bill Bennett, Reagan’s former education secretary, said of the GOP: “You can’t be the governing party unless you offer people a way out of poverty.”

Three leading Republicans are beginning to offer right-wing visions of “Christmas Yet to Come.” They are Ryan, Paul and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.

Priebus has acknowledged that the GOP is being hurt among voters by the perception that it does not care about the poor. He is increasing Republican political outreach to impoverished and minority voters with the promise of being a “champion” for people climbing the economic ladder.

Both Ryan and Paul have taken trips into poor, often minority, neighborhoods to help Republicans shed the “Scrooge” image.

Ryan has indicated he envisions a conservative plan to fight poverty with fewer social workers, less welfare payments and more school choice.

As a youth, Ryan relied on Social Security benefits after his father died when he was 16. The heart of his fight against modern poverty appears to be focused on poor children. In a 2012 speech as the GOP’s vice presidential nominee, he stressed that black and Hispanic children are close to 70 percent of the children in the nation’s worst schools.

Paul, meanwhile, told the Detroit Economic Club earlier this month that the answer to persistent poverty is “leaving more money in the hands of those who earn it,” with low tax zones for investors and workers in areas with high unemployment.

Republicans can read the exit polls. Those polls show that families with incomes less than $50,000 gave 60 percent of their votes to Democrats in 2012 while Americans with family income over $100,000 gave 54 percent of their votes to the GOP.

Getting started on a new War on Poverty is essential to any GOP dreams of becoming enlightened.

Like Scrooge on Christmas morning, the party needs to wake up and discover how lifting up the poor, especially children, can lead to a better future.