Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a potential 2016 White House
contender, stood in the Lyndon B. Johnson room of the U.S. Capitol
to criticize what he said were flawed Democratic big-government
solutions dating back to Johnson's presidential tenure.
"We have anti-poverty programs that help alleviate the pain of
poverty, but they don't do nearly enough to help people overcome the
causes of it," Rubio said, separately invoking the struggles of his
parents who emigrated to the United States from Cuba. A lack of jobs
was the chief cause he cited.
Johnson declared an "unconditional war on poverty" in his 1964 State
of the Union speech. He followed with legislation creating a series
of new federal programs, including the Head Start early education
program for toddlers, food assistance, and health insurance for the
poor and elderly through Medicaid and Medicare.
Rubio offered ideas such as shifting responsibility for many federal
benefit programs to the states and providing a new form of federal
aid, "wage enhancement," to low-income wage-earners designed to
ensure that they make more money working than they might from
receiving unemployment benefits.
At a separate event, House of Representatives Republicans pushed a
proposal to require people to work in exchange for food stamps. A
party effort to toughen requirements for food-stamp eligibility has
been challenged by Democrats, who say it would knock some people off
the rolls and add to economic suffering at a time when many
Americans are struggling.
Rubio's charge that earlier ideas weren't helping the poor was
picked up by Florida Republican Representative Steve Southerland,
who is leading an initiative on poverty for the Republican Study
Committee, a large bloc of House conservatives: "While (the war on
poverty) may have been launched with the best of intentions, it's
clear we are now engaged in a battle of attrition that has left more
Americans in poverty that at any other point in our nation's
"47 PERCENT" SOLUTION?
Democrats have been laying plans for months to focus their 2014 U.S.
congressional agenda on narrowing the gap between the rich and poor,
and President Barack Obama intends to make the theme central to his
State of the Union address on January 28.
Michael Czin, press secretary for the Democratic National Committee,
said that far from helping the poor, Republicans are intent on
"shredding" social safety net programs. He cited Republican
resistance to Democratic proposals such as extending federal
unemployment benefits and raising the minimum wage.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a former vice
presidential candidate and another potential 2016 Republican
presidential contender, has also taken up the issue of poverty.
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Ryan has been visiting poor neighborhoods and meeting with advisers
to shape an anti-poverty program he will publicize later this year.
Ryan will be interviewed about the subject on Thursday by NBC and is
scheduled to speak at the Brookings Institution think tank next
Monday on the topic of social mobility.
The Republican pivot comes at the start of a year in which the party
aspires to wrest control of the U.S. Senate from Democrats in the
November congressional elections and to boost its majorities in the
House of Representatives by crying up the problem-plagued rollout of
Prominent Republicans have worried since the 2012 defeat of
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney about the need to
avoid the appearance of not caring about the poor and the middle
class, a portrayal Democrats have encouraged since the Johnson era.
Romney sealed that image during the campaign when he disparaged the
"47 percent" of U.S. households he described as living off
Most recently, Obama and Democrats in Congress have made much out of
Republican resistance to raising the minimum wage and extending
"What Paul Ryan and others are trying to do is undo decades of
stereotypes that are associated with the political parties. And
that's just a really tough battle," said George Washington
University political scientist John Sides.
"I think there's been something of an indifference among the
Republican party and the conservative movement to the poor. I think
that's been a moral failure, and I think it has had negative
political ramifications," said Peter Wehner, a scholar at the Ethics
and Public Policy Center in Washington and a former aide to
Republican President George W. Bush.
If Republicans want to make headway in changing perceptions, Wehner
said, it will be crucial for them to flesh out their ideas on
fighting poverty with concrete details in the coming months.
"Rhetoric alone won't do it," he said, "but serious policies will."
(Reporting by Caren Bohan; editing by Fred Barbash and Prudence
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