Listening to Republican politicians these days, as they talk (and talk and talk) about poverty and inequality, can be a poignant experience. They want us to know they’re worried about the diminishing economic prospects confronted by so many Americans. They hope we will admire their shiny new solutions. And they are so eager for us to believe that they care.
But however concerned those Republican worthies may be, they still insist on promoting the same exhausted and useless ideas favored by their party for decades. The sad result is that almost nobody believes that they care at all – and their “anti-poverty initiatives” tend to be dismissed with a snicker as public relations rather than public policy.
Of course, it would be easier to feel sorry for these would-be saviors of the poor if they tried just a little harder. How long have conservatives been advising the poor that their lot would improve if only they got religion? That pious attitude dates back beyond Dickens — but Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, House Budget Committee chair and Mitt Romney running mate, seems to feel it qualifies him as a deep and sensitive thinker. (As a Catholic, however, Ryan should note that Pope Francis doesn’t think prayer will suffice for the excluded and the impoverished. Instead His Holiness urges governments to act boldly on their behalf.)
The latest example of rhetorical failure is Senator Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican whose eager quest for national relevance has yet to achieve traction. Marking the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of the “war on poverty,” Rubio delivered what aides billed as a major address on the topic, filled with fresh and brilliant policy alternatives to “big government.”
What little content could be gleaned from Rubio’s speech — leaving aside the worn homilies about the land of opportunity and his toiling ancestors – was a Reagan-era plan to devolve federal anti-poverty programs to the states, as “block grants,” plus a vague scheme to transform the successful Earned Income Tax Credit into something different, with details to arrive someday.
The entire speech consisted of such thin and indigestible gruel, which the worst workhouse would have hesitated to serve its downtrodden clientele a century or so ago. Even the undeserving poor deserve better.
Much as conservatives like Rubio repeatedly tell us that local and state programs are always better than federal, there isn’t much evidence to support the claim. They should listen to their own constant complaining about the unacceptable quality of public education, which is almost entirely administered by towns, counties, and states – and contrasts nicely with Social Security and Medicare, the two most effective remedies for poverty ever devised in this country.
Does Rubio propose that the government should turn those popular and efficient programs into block grants, and send the money to the states? He would be chased out of Florida with tar and feathers if he dared.