Speaking on the 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s declaration of “War on Poverty,” Senator Marco Rubio declared that Big Government has lost that war. “Too many people remain trapped in despair,” he said in a speech from the Lyndon B. Johnson Room of the Senate. “Now, we must try a new way – one that addresses the things keeping so many people from the better life they want.”
Rubio’s remarks touched on the great difference between the way liberals and conservatives view the War on Poverty. Is the goal to make poverty less difficult, and is that goal successfully achieved… even if there is more poverty than before? That’s where we are now – an achievement purchased at staggering expense. Poverty has reached record levels, but the definition includes people who certainly are not suffering in any great way, particularly when the value of government welfare support is counted. Defenders of the old-school War on Poverty could say that alleviating the most grueling hardship is indeed an achievement.
Or would the War on Poverty be won by reducing the number of impoverished people, helping them move into the middle class, and leaving government welfare benefits behind? And are those two objectives incompatible? In other words, to put things in the blunt terms politicians are not supposed to use, is the social safety net comfortable enough to have a marginal negative effect on people who might otherwise work their way out of poverty?
This question always conjures images of inter-generational welfare dependency, people accustomed to living entirely at taxpayer expense. But that’s not the only consideration. What about people who sincerely want to become independent… but make a rational calculation that their benefits are too valuable to surrender, in exchange for work that might not last? It is often forgotten in these discussions that work has a cost associated with it. If nothing else, it’s usually necessary to pay for transportation back and forth to the job. Sometimes it seems as though policy wonks forget about these costs because they personally regard them as negligible, but in the difficult terrain between dependent poverty and low-wage work, no cost is beneath notice.
At the margins of the workforce, when high labor cost makes entry-level jobs scarce, and the cost of pursuing employment makes it literally more trouble than it’s worth, there is a painful sense that the rungs of upward mobility slip from too many fingers. This is what Rubio addressed in his speech, mentioning the current Democrat obsessions with “income inequality” and the minimum wage – which seems to have earned groans from some conservative reviewers, but he dismissed the former and spoke of upward mobility as a more valuable poverty-fighting tool than wage controls.
“For some Americans, this kind of mobility isn’t happening,” said Rubio. “For example, 70 percent of children born into poverty will never make it to the middle class. The uncomfortable truth is that there are now a number of other countries with as much or more opportunity than ours. In fact, more people in Canada go on to surpass the income of their parents than in the United States.”
It is the opportunity gap that Rubio said we must address, rather than an income gap to be filled with wealth redistribution – which, through both job-cutting minimum wage increases and reduced investment due to confiscatory taxation, tends to wipe out the opportunities needed to meaningfully reduce poverty, rather than subsidizing it. He spoke of economic transitions that have “wiped out many of the low-skill jobs that once provided millions with a middle-class living,” and social factors that “also play a major role in denying equal opportunity,” most notably illegitimacy.
“The truth is, the greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82 percent,” said Rubio. “But it isn???t a government spending program. It???s called marriage. Fifty years ago, today, when the War on Poverty was launched, 93 percent of children born in the United States were born to married parents. By 2010, that number had plummeted to 60 percent. It should not surprise us that 71 percent of poor families with children are not headed by a married couple.”
He cited a lack of good education as a major factor in the dissolution of marriage, observing that a far higher percentage of adults with college degrees get married, while children from low-income families are the least likely to receive advanced education. “The result is a vicious cycle of inter-generational poverty,” said Rubio.
To combat this, he called for “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.” This would involve transferring control and money for anti-poverty programs to the states, using what he called “a revenue-neutral flex fund.” He envisioned these state programs working along the lines of 1990s welfare reforms, which “promoted work rather than dependence,” producing “a decline in poverty rates and welfare expenses” in subsequent years.
(It should be noted that Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, one of the architects of those Nineties reforms, swiftly gave Rubio’s speech a bad review, calling the flex fund “an extraordinarily bad idea,” and dismissing Rubio’s idea to replace the Earned Income Tax Credit with wage subsidies wouldn’t “really change much of anything.” Rector, in an interview with Buzzfeed, emphasized the importance of aggressive work requirements for welfare, which were imposed on the states by the federal government.)
In an interview with CNBC, Rubio repeated that the “problem with our current safety-net programs is that they help alleviate some of the pain of poverty, but they do absolutely nothing to help people emerge from that poverty.”
Some of what Rubio talks about here, particularly the example he gave CNBC of a 30-year-old single mother who needs more education but can’t “just drop everything and go to a university for four years,” sounds more like a call to emphasize skills training over the university system, which would in turn reverse the status of university degrees as a fabulously expensive pass that lets young people play workforce roulette and hope a job turns up. Some may say Republican policy should be focused more on the working middle class than poverty reforms, but there is a case to be made that these appeals are linked, in part because people in the middle class are more worried about sliding into poverty than enjoying upward mobility in these uncertain economic times. And the hoary liberal critique that Republicans don’t care about the poor often harms their standing with middle-class voters, making Rubio’s War on Poverty speech a pre-emptive strike against demagoguery.