Well before Donald Trump ever became a political phenomenon, Rep. Paul Ryan told his fellow Republicans that poverty should be a Republican issue.
Now, the Trump rebellion is beginning to make his case for him.
The overarching message of the Trump campaign isn’t directed at the usual targets of federal poverty programs, such as isolated pockets of extreme poverty in Appalachia or the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. It targets people who have had good jobs but have lost bargaining power in a global economy.
Polls show Mr. Trump resonates most strongly with the growing precarious middle – those whose parents were firmly middle class but now find themselves in need and at least nearing the margins of poverty.
The result is a percolating conversation among Republicans about how to shore up America’s safety net. To Mr. Ryan, now speaker of the House, that means moving federal money out of some welfare programs and into others he says are more effective, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).
To Democrats and some advocates for the poor, that sounds like robbing from one class of the poor to give to another – perhaps for electoral advantage.
Yet the shift in Republican thinking was noted by none other than President Obama in his State of the Union address.
“Speaker Ryan has talked about his interest in tackling poverty,” he said. “I’d welcome a serious discussion about strategies we can all support…”
Whether they can agree on any reforms is an open question. But Mr. Trump is forcing Republicans to talk about poverty as more than just a target for federal budget cuts.
“The issues of economic inequality have been emerging in the last decade or so as somewhat of a vulnerability for the Republican Party as it looks to expand its base of support,” says John Ullyot, a GOP strategist and managing director of High Lantern Group in Washington.
Seeds of the antiestablishment revolt
Indeed, GOP front-runners Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas are thought to have had such success bashing the establishment partly because the establishment is seen as out of touch. David Brooks, the influential conservative New York Times columnist, has said this primary campaign demands a restatement of conservative values.
“This would be a conservatism that emphasized social mobility at the bottom, not cutting taxes at the top,” he writes.
For example, Trump draws cheers when he pledges to protect Social Security and Medicare.
“A lot of people live from check to check,” he writes in his latest book, “Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again.” “There’s no way I’m letting these payments be reduced.”
While the Republican establishment is wary of Trump as a nominee, they see the new “precariat” – or precarious proletariat – streaming to his rallies.
In a nod to such concerns, the Republican-controlled Congress in December extended a tax package to help keep millions of families out of poverty. Measures included extending enhancements to programs such as the Child Tax Credit and the EITC, passed as part of the 2009 Recovery Act and set to expire in 2017.
Top House leaders are moving to expand such help, including a measure to extend the EITC to childless families.
“Once the speaker of the House makes it this high a priority – and this publicly – things happen,” says Robert Doar, the Morgridge fellow in poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute and a former welfare administrator in New York City.
It’s an issue that conservatives say could help their party expand its reach and even win the White House.
“In addition to the moral imperative of helping our brothers and sisters [we can ask] will this help the Republican Party? There’s data on this,” said Arthur Brooks, president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, cosponsor of a poverty summit hosted by Ryan this month.
“We know that if conservatives capture the traits that are typically associated with liberals – empathy and compassion – that fact will swing independent persuadable voters by 10 percentage points to the right,” he added. “That’s not something that can win, it’s the only thing that will.”
The question is how this should be paid for.
In the past, Mr. Obama has proposed paying for it by changing the tax code in a way that mostly hits Americans in the top two income quintiles, according to a Brookings Institution analysis.
For his part, Ryan has proposed expanding EITC by cutting other welfare programs, such as the Social Services Block Grant and federal nutrition programs.
“Though Ryan describes these programs as ineffective, many of them provide valuable resources to the communities they serve,” Brookings found.
“Many of these programs help those in the deepest poverty – who in many cases are those least likely to benefit from welfare-to-work policies such as the EITC…,” it added.
On one hand, the proposal looks likely to shift federal money from a group of voters likely to be Democratic to another more likely to be Republican. But there is a more fundamental ideology at work, some say.
Conservatives have a deep conviction that “money should not be handed out for not doing anything,” writes Stephen Hess in his 2015 book, “The Professor and the President.” During the Nixon era, that resulted in Republicans killing President Nixon’s proposed “negative income tax” – a family allowance for the working and the nonworking poor, Mr. Hess writes.
Today, Republicans remain against the handout route and are more inclined to prioritize areas where assistance could help squeezed workers – especially those who used to be part of the middle class.
“Republicans need to recast their policies for the poor as a self-help agenda, with less emphasis on warm sentiments and more on offering tools for advancement,” wrote Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam in a seminal 2005 essay in The Weekly Standard titled “The Party of Sam’s Club: Isn’t it time the Republicans did something for their voters?”
The authors targeted the EITC as a tool that could be expanded to help “the less-educated single men who are at the root of the poverty problem.”
That’s the agenda urged earlier this month at the Republican poverty forum held in Columbia, S.C. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie talked about the good results in his state from doubling the state EITC for low-income workers – an idea also backed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
The test of a new GOP commitment to poverty will be whether it can cut taxes and balance the budget without deep cuts in some of the resources available for basic assistance for the poor, says Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington.