Last week, Republicans marked the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty by denouncing it as an abject failure. Rep. Steve Southerland (R-FL), performed a mathematical sleight of hand in declaring that “more people are living in poverty than ever before.”
The National Review, the intellectual standard bearer of movement conservatism, published an editorial relying on the same deceptive math. (Yes, more people are living in poverty, but the percentage is lower. The population has grown in the last half-century.) House Speaker John Boehner rushed to agree with those analyses.
But the more interesting assaults came from a handful of young Turks, including Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), who understand that the GOP needs to change its image to reflect more charity and compassion toward the less fortunate. They presented familiar criticisms of government intervention on behalf of the poor while also promising they would introduce better solutions.
If only they were sincere. As the United States — like the rest of the industrialized world — grapples with structural economic changes that are hollowing out the middle class, its leaders desperately need to come up with new ideas to help struggling Americans maintain a decent standard of living. Unfortunately, Republicans have next to nothing to offer.
Take Rubio’s speech. His proposals were warmed-over Republican rhetoric from the last three decades, including the oft-repeated complaint that poor people are impoverished because they refuse to get married. He might as well have been Dan Quayle in 1992, railing against the fictional out-of-wedlock mother Murphy Brown.
“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. But it isn’t a government spending program. It’s called marriage,” he said.
This argument makes me crazy. I’m a huge fan of the institution because of the many benefits a good marriage bestows: intimacy, companionship, stability. But it does not solve poverty. Suggesting it does is a logical fallacy — confusing cause and correlation.