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Juan Williams: Republicans must get real on poverty

Greg Nash

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) last week declared the 50-year-old War on Poverty a failure.

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So when he took the center seat among journalists, appearing on Fox’s “Special Report with Bret Baier,” I asked him if he thinks a sharp reduction in poverty among seniors is a failure. The War on Poverty included the Social Security amendments of 1965 that created Medicaid and Medicare. Rubio’s home state, Florida, has the second-highest number of Medicare beneficiaries in the nation.

“You’re now asking me about programs — Social Security and Medicare — that are there for retirees,” Rubio replied. “If you’re 89 years old and living in poverty, you can’t go out and get a full-time job and shouldn’t be expected to … I’m talking about the vast majority of people in poverty [who] are able-bodied and would like to work and would like to have a better life … If we want a real war on poverty we have to fight a war for equal opportunity.”

In his speech at the Capitol, subtitled “Conservative Reforms for Combating Poverty,” Rubio said the best anti-poverty program is a good job. The War on Poverty failed, he contended, because it did not create jobs or help people get training to win jobs.

But Rubio did not speak to the heart of the War on Poverty — the nation’s social safety net programs and the good they do to reduce poverty.

Census data analyzed by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities for 2013 shows the overall national poverty rate would jump from 16 percent to 29 percent without government assistance programs.

The senator was particularly wise to keep away from any claim that the War on Poverty has failed the elderly. In 2012, the Census Bureau reported that 55 percent of seniors 65 and older would be living in poverty if not for Social Security benefits. With Social Security, only 15 percent of seniors are impoverished.

Almost all seniors take advantage of Medicare and Medicaid. Their protection against being driven into indigence by medical bills is another major legacy of the War on Poverty.

Yet the GOP continues to denounce the idea of government spending on the social safety net.

Attacks on poverty programs play particularly well in Republican primaries, especially among Tea Party activists who see cutting government spending as a key test for all candidates.

That’s why including food stamps in the stalled farm bill is so difficult for House Republicans. It is no problem for them, however, to continue to voice support for federal subsidies to farmers, including many large corporate farming operations that are profitable.

Outside of Republican primaries, entitlement spending that helps people avoid poverty is a poll-tested winning idea.

I asked Rubio how he can claim to care about helping the unemployed when he and all but six Senate Republicans voted against even having a debate on extending unemployment insurance. The senator and his fellow Republicans are also opposed to raising the minimum wage.

These are popular proposals.

A November Gallup poll found that 58 percent of Republicans, 76 percent of Independents and 91 percent of Democrats support increasing the minimum wage to $9 per hour from its current level of $7.25.

So how can Rubio say voters don’t care about people facing unemployment and poverty?

“The reason I voted against opening the debate is because [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid [D-Nev.] said he wouldn’t allow us to open any amendments,” Rubio explained. “In essence, the only thing we can vote on is his effort or nothing at all … on how to reform the system.”

Rubio said he wants any extension to include requirements for job skill training.

The senator explained his opposition to President Obama’s plan to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 in his speech, saying a job that pays $10 an hour is “not the American Dream.” He said such plans “help people deal with poverty, but they do not help them escape it.”

But what about people who need help now?

Opposing unemployment extension and a higher minimum wage allows Democrats to paint Republicans as the party of the rich.

This is the exact political dynamic that led to Obama’s win in 2012. The GOP nominated a candidate, Mitt Romney, who played to Tea Party priorities by focusing on cutting entitlement spending and famously complained about the 47 percent of the population who he said were content to live on government handouts.

The hard-right fixation on the debt distorts the value of government programs that act as a buffer against poverty. It leads even thoughtful conservatives to wrongly focus on cutting government spending even at a time of extremely low inflation and a stubbornly slow economic recovery.

Only in a distorted mirror is the deficit a bigger issue for Americans than spurring economic growth and offering a social safety net to the poor.