What would a Republican 'war on poverty' look like, circa 2016?

Republicans, especially possible 2016 presidential contenders in 2016, want to change their party's image as unfeeling toward the poor. Here are five ideas from prominent Republicans for helping low-income Americans advance.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a Cuban-American, speaks about the 'American dream' on the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s first State of the Union address in 1964, where LBJ committed the government to a war on poverty, Jan. 8.

Sticking up for the poor and disadvantaged may not be the Republican trademark, but several key Republicans in Congress – particularly those who are presidential possibles for 2016 – are working to change that image.

Among the Republicans speaking out about poverty are Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, and House majority leader Eric Cantor of Virginia. They are presenting their ideas at a time when Democrats are challenging the GOP on the issue of economic inequality (think benefits for the long-term jobless and the minimum wage) and remembering the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty.”

Republicans on the Hill are by no means united in their approach to helping the poor and the shaky middle class, but several themes are emerging. Here are five ideas prominent Republicans are putting forward.

Speak with compassion. The GOP knows it has an image problem when it comes to kindness and humanity. A Republican National Committee review of the 2012 campaign cited “the perception that the GOP does not care about people” as a “major deficiency.” A simple place to start is to change the language. Representative Ryan, speaking last May at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, acknowledged that Democrats are “speaking to a need – a need for security in a world of growing complexity.” Then he added, “The fact is, we also have to speak to this need.”

That’s why Ryan, the former vice presidential running mate to Mitt Romney, has been touring inner-city neighborhoods, formulating his antipoverty ideas, and talking about those ideas in public – for instance, at a Newseum event on poverty with NBC news anchor Brian Williams on Jan. 9 and in a Brookings Institution speech on Jan. 13.

Less Washington, more jobs. Free enterprise is the greatest job creator there is, but the federal government is a huge impediment to job growth, Republicans say. Senator Rubio, the son of immigrants, echoed many Republicans Jan. 8 when he said in an antipoverty speech that a simpler tax code, fewer federal regulations, and a lower national debt would allow “free enterprise to flourish.”

But Rubio has a more radical idea to achieve social mobility and to help people get the skills they need to work in today’s information-based economy. Standing beneath the frescoes of the Senate’s ornate Johnson room (named for President Johnson, who had also served  as a Senate majority leader), he proposed Jan. 8 to take most of the federal government's antipoverty programs, transfer the funds to a single agency, and then disperse those funds to the states to work with.

States and localities best understand the needs and conditions, and they are the best generators of innovative solutions, he said. Legislation that embodies Rubio’s idea is still under construction, but the senator has suggested that long-term jobless insurance and food stamps might be candidates ripe for dismantling and redistributing funding to the states.

School choice. Republicans see education as key to social and economic mobility, as do Democrats. The Head Start preschool program for low-income families, for instance, began as a "war on poverty" initiative on Johnson's watch. But the two political parties diverge over how best to employ education to help people advance. Representative Cantor, in prepared remarks for a speech at the Brookings Institution Jan. 8, said “school choice is the surest way to break” the cycle of poverty, emphasizing not only the need for more charter schools but also vouchers for private education. His goal is to provide school choice to every child in America within 10 years. 

While many Democrats favor public charter schools, they bristle at vouchers, arguing that they undermine public education.

Enterprise zones. This is not a new idea. Republican Jack Kemp, the late New York congressman, in the 1980s championed targeting impoverished areas for development and special treatment, as did President Reagan. Now, President Obama has chosen five “promise zones” for government help through tax incentives, education grants, and housing assistance.

Enterprise zones are being pushed by Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, but he calls them “economic freedom zones.” His focus is on almost eliminating taxes in economically distressed areas such as Detroit. And he’s talking taxes of all kinds: corporate, income, payroll, and capital gains. "What we hope to do is create taxes so low that you essentially are able to bail yourselves out, by having more money accumulate in the area over time," Senator Paul said last month.

Build stronger communities. Americans are giving, loving, and resourceful people, and those impulses need to be encouraged in communities, says the GOP's Ryan. He cites tale after tale of people and communities pulling together, from the case of his widowed mother to neighborhoods he has visited.

“We want everyone to have a chance in life – a chance to be happy. And we’re happiest when we’re together. We want to be together. It’s in our nature. We feel it in our bones,” he said in his May speech. That togetherness takes shape in the church meeting, the neighborhood watch, the food bank, the small business, he said. “The more we work together – out of our own free will – the stronger we become.”

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