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The GOP's War on Poverty: Does It Exist?

Updated on January 18, 2014

Rupublican's war on poverty is, at best, more message than policy

Last week, on the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s famous “war on poverty,” some stars of the Republican Party paraded to the stage to express their care for poor people and how they will make things better for them. The National Review also joined the parade. What they said was not in celebration of Johnson’s war on poverty; rather, it was to show that they cared about the poor, while claiming that their policies would alleviate poverty.

Those speeches will be examined, here, in order to ferret out, in clear terms, what the GOP proposes to do to alleviate poverty in America and to determine if they are sincere in their efforts.

Senator Marco Rubio

Speaking in the Lyndon B. Johnson Room, Senator Rubio began by trying to identify with the poor and to show his concern about poor people who have not moved out of poverty. Using his family experience as a precursor, he said, “We are still in a country where hard work and perseverance can earn you a better life… Yet we are rightly troubled that so many of our people are still caught in what seems to be pervasive, unending financial struggle. It bothers us because we are a people united by the belief that every American deserves an equal opportunity to achieve success.”

He then pivoted to Johnson’s war of poverty and today’s efforts to eradicate it: “Fifty years ago, today, President Lyndon Johnson sought to address the plight of poverty by waging a war against it,” he said. “Today, the debate on poverty is primarily focused on the growing income gap between the rich and the poor.” Citing the statistics that show the disparity between the rich and the poor, he said the figures “do not give us “a complete view” of the poverty problem. It is “this lack of mobility, not just income inequality that we should focus on.”

“Therefore, what I am proposing today is the most fundamental change to how the federal government fights poverty and encourages mobility since President Johnson first conceived of the War on Poverty fifty years ago,” he said. “I am proposing that we turn Washington’s anti-poverty programs—and the trillions spent on them—over to the states.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor

Cantor limited his discussion, at the Brookings Institute, to education. In his speech, he made an “impassioned plea to expand options for charter schools, vouchers for private schools, and flexible funding for poverty-stricken districts,” according to the National Journal. He declared: “School choice is the surest way to break the vicious cycle of poverty.”

He also publically criticized the federal government for spending “hundreds of billions of dollars to improve schools in low-income areas with little to no effect” and “took aim at New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, for his cooler stance on public charter schools and warned that Republicans may hold congressional hearings on his administration’s education policies.”

The National Review Online Symposium

The NRO symposium, The War on Poverty at 50, sought to answer the following questions: What went wrong? What, if anything, went right? What would a real war on poverty look like in 2014?

Experts, who provided answers to these questions, are Josh Archambault, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability; John H. Armstrong, President of the ACT3 Network in Carol Stream, Ill; Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute and the Beth and Ravenel Curry Scholar in Free Enterprise; Stanly Carson-Thies, President of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance; Grant E. Collins, Deputy Director of the Office of Family Assistance at the Department of Health and Human Services; and Nicholas Ebberstadt, the Henry Wendt Chair at the American Enterprise Institute.

Archambault admitted that “the most prosperous nation in the history of the world should provide basic protection for the most vulnerable. But the safety net was intended to be effective, affordable, focused, and committed to moving people toward self-sufficiency.” He continued: “As we mark the 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s war on poverty, we see how far off the mark we are from his attempt to move beyond [poverty]” He went on cite the trillions of dollars spent on anti-poverty programs to no avail. “We need the political will and moral imperative,” he said, “to shut down failing programs and redirect resources toward anti-poverty measures that work.” His solution: Transfer management of the program from Washington to the states.

Armstrong declared that the war on poverty “was a massive failure.” The reason: “Continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration of the national fiber. To dole out relief… is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.” That is, the failure of the war on poverty was caused by this “narcotic” that destroyed the incentive to work, eroding “the national character of millions of Americans who were subtly taught that it really is more blessed to receive than to give.”

Brooks, blaming President Obama for “giving up ground on the war on poverty,” noted that, since 2009, food-stamp recipients have “increased by 50 percent,” with “48 million Americans requiring food assistance to get by.” “Labor-force participation has fallen to 63 percent,” with “the smallest fraction of Americans since 1970 employed or seeking employment.” The number of persons on disability insurance has “surge by 20 percent,” with “a million new people” collecting disability checks “every year.” The unemployment rate for black teens has climbed to 38 percent. “History,” he said, “will assign responsibility to the President of the United States,” not to George Bush. “The Obama years will be remembered as the time America gave up ground on the war on poverty.” His remedy: “The better path forward,” he said, “is to lower the minimum wage and expand the Earned Income Tax Credit.” To this, he added reforming education and pro-growth policies.

Carlson-Thies focused on, what he called, “non-economic dimensions in poverty,” saying that “persistent poverty is more than a lack of money” and that “its ending takes more than money and services.” Johnson’s war on poverty, he claimed, “did not address the non-economic dimension,” which he identified as families, neighbors, and religious charities. “Some government programs,” he said further, “harmed rather than rejuvenated essential institutions.” In essence, he thinks strong marriages, religious charities, and friends are the answer to eradicating poverty in America.

Collins’ strange twist on the war on poverty is that “poverty is as much a state of mind as it is the lack of material goods and resources,” and, as such, “many are poor even with a paycheck.”

Eberstadt, using Census Bureau statics, induced that “there has been no progress whatever in reducing the prevalence of absolute poverty in our country for nearly a half century.” In 2012, 15 percent had incomes below the fixed poverty line; in 1966, 14.7 percent had incomes below the poverty line. The problem here,” he says, “is that these figures are nonsense numbers, generated by an obviously cracked algorithm.” In other words, he says the poverty rate measures the wrong thing. While it should measure “annual consumption,” it measures “annual income.” Given the consumption level in the United States, he indicates that the war on poverty has already been won. It’s just a matter how poverty is measured.

The Problem with the GOP’s War on Poverty

It seems clear from these speeches and writings that Republicans’ war on poverty is no more than their core principles, wrapped in a different garb—a caring garb.

In essence, Republicans “believe that economic, social, and political stability can be best achieved with a minimum of federal government intervention,” according to The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. “In this regard, Republicans, grant more responsibility and power to state governments,” support “measures to balance the federal budget without raising taxes,” advocate “a strong national defense,” and “limit federal responsibility for social welfare programs, arguing that such programs are not beneficial to the nation in the long run.”

Republicans do not believe social welfare programs should be supported by the federal government. So they try to persuade the poor to believe that their policies will deliver them from poverty, by breaking their dependence on what is called “entitlement programs.”

Josh Barro in the Business Insider may have something. He wrote, “The problem with the Republican anti-poverty agenda is that it doesn’t exist.” They “have no legislative agenda that would address poverty.” They just want the government “to get out of the way” by cutting taxes, spending, and regulations. If the government would do that, “the labor market would tighten, people would get jobs, and wages would rise.” The problem, he said, is that “empirical evidence for this proposition is lacking.”

Barro quotes Costa and Phillip Rucker who said “Republicans aren’t really having a policy discussion about poverty at all. They are having a messaging discussion.”

Cynthia Tucker, visiting professor at the University of Georgia School of Journalism and MSNBC Contributor, added: “The sad truth is that Republicans have no workable plans for reducing poverty—just a plan to fool the political classes into thinking they care,” according to the National Memo.

The GOP’s war on poverty, therefore, is merely a war of words—words to convince the poor to vote for them, while they continue to resist raising the minimum wage, continue to hold hostage the administration’s job bill, continue to vote against extending unemployment insurance, and continue to block Medicaid expansion required under the Affordable Care Act. Moreover, they continue their effort to privatize entitlement programs. Their war on poverty is “a war on the war of poverty,” Joy Reid, MSNBC Contributor, said on Al Sharpton’s Politics Nation.


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    Post Comment

    • Lawrence L Beale profile imageAUTHOR

      Lawrence L Beale 

      4 years ago

      Your comments are helpful. I my be bias, but I am a progressive, not conservative.

    • lovemychris profile image

      Leslie McCowen 

      4 years ago from Cape Cod, USA

      Yes, they are trolling for votes, like they did prior to 2010.

      Remember Boehner, and his screaming jobs, jobs, jobs?

      That got rs elected to House, and what did they do?

      330 anti-abortion legislation, passing laws that make it harder to vote, and dismissing 15 of the 16 jobs bills offered to them.

      Oh, and of course, lowering taxes for corporations, and in the case of Michigan, firing public employees and replacing them with cronies!

      This is their true agenda, and anyone who believes they care about poor is ignorant. Imo

      Oh, forgot Christie, who diminished earned income tax credit, whichwas Reagan anti-poverty Idea.

      If people buy their hype again, it will be over for America.

      It will be the haves and the nothings burned into it has been for the greater part of our history.

      They knew what they were doing when they killed Kennedy.

      Whoever they are.

      in my view.


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