Politics of Poverty

Four things I learned from the GOP Presidential Forum on Poverty

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Republican presidential candidates at the Kemp Presidential Forum on Poverty. From left: Moderators House Speaker Paul Ryan, left, and Senator Tim Scott, and Presidential candidates Jeb Bush, Ben Carson and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Photo: Sean Rayford/AP

Some good news and some bad, but the best news is that the serious issues of poverty in the US are finally on the table.

Instead of sitting down with the Golden Globes over the weekend, I spent my time on Saturday watching the “Kemp Presidential Forum on Expanding Opportunity” down in Columbia, South Carolina. I figured it was about time for at least some of the 2016 Presidential Republican candidates to bring a spotlight to a topic seldom mentioned in this campaign: poverty in America.

After all, poverty and low and stagnant wages SHOULD be a huge topic of national conversation;  as rapidly widening inequality in our country is pushing more and people to the bottom while the richest  prosper. While corporate profits are at record highs and the stock market keeps rising, the number of people living in poverty hovers near historic highs. More than one in five children in the US lives in poverty – that’s roughly 16 million. And yet the issue has barely drawn a nod during the first Republican Presidential debates.

So I settled in, looking forward to candidates finally digging in and talking about sensible and long overdue solutions. And there were some hopeful moments. But  I was quickly frustrated by the candidates’ how the candidate fixated on some causes of poverty and ignored others, aiming to holding the poor accountable while ignoring the role of others (i.e. low-wage employers). (And, I was disappointed that the two GOP frontrunners, Trump and Cruz, didn’t bother to show up.)

Out of the discussion that did happen, four things struck me:

  1. The good news: With Ryan as Speaker, we may hear more about poverty. Representative Paul Ryan, who served as co-moderator of the forum, has made a notable effort to elevate the discussion of poverty within the GOP. As the newly minted Speaker, he’s already leveraging his clout to get the 2016 candidates more engaged on issues facing the most vulnerable. While some experts have raised concern about some of his proposals, it’s undeniable that Ryan’s speakership creates a new space for discussion and action around challenges facing low income families.
  2. The bad news: The candidates still don’t support raising the minimum wage, despite agreeing that people who are willing to work should make a decent wage; and companies should be compelled to pay fairly. Every candidate agreed that that work is essential to ending poverty, and that a good-paying job is a bridge out of poverty. You’d think that would lead naturally to endorsing a boost in the federal minimum wage, which has been frozen at a poverty wage of $7.25 an hour for eight long years (while the cost of living steadily climbs).

Across the country, voters of all political stripes agree that passing a minimum wage would be good for America. Oxfam America and McLaughlin Associates recently found the majority of GOP voters in the upcoming Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire Primary support and increase, as do 87 percent of voters in the most important swing states.

Still, much of the discussion wasn’t about ensuring that jobs pay enough to support a family, but rather about proposals by Speaker Ryan and others to strengthen work requirements in government-benefits programs. Only a small minority of poor Americans who can work choose not to, or to pursue education to find a better job. The majority of poor Americans do work; and many of them are stuck in poverty-wage jobs.

Shouldn’t there be room for strengthening the minimum wage within a Republican anti-poverty platform?  After all, Republicans have joined Democrats in Congress voting to approve an increase in the minimum wage numerous times in the past, as cost of living outstripped the buying power of the minimum wage. As 2012 Republican Presidential Nominee Mitt Romney said in a recent interview:

“I think we’re nuts not to raise the minimum wage. I think as a party, to say we’re trying to help the middle class of America and the poor and not raise the minimum wage sends exactly the wrong signal.”

The mixed news:

  1. The GOP vision for working with local partners presents an opportunity and a challenge. Poverty is complicated, and manifests itself in many ways. Local churches and community-based institutions are often best able to help people navigate through economic, health, or educational challenges.

But this is not a reason to keep the federal government out of poverty policy, as some candidates argued; that is simply unrealistic. Without the federal government, how could we rally the resources and the reach to address such large challenges?

Take hunger: local charities and churches represent just one in every 20 bags of food assistance provided to the hungry in our country; the federal government provides the other 19, according to Bread for the World.

The benefits of local partners aren’t a convincing rationale for shifting funding and decision-making to the states. Oxfam’s partners along the Gulf Coast have struggled to convince state governments to use federal disaster-recovery funds to actually help poor and minority families in Louisiana and Mississippi. Relying too much on state decisions can be a disservice to local organizations.

  1. It’s all about the tax credits. Candidate after candidate touted the benefits of the earned income tax credit (EITC), a refundable credit to increase the income of low-wage workers, or of their own tax plan for addressing poverty. This is an important policy, and one that could help many families and low wage workers to have some much needed additional income come Tax Day. Last night in the State of the Union, in a particularly hopeful moment, President Obama even extended a rhetorical hand to Speaker Ryan saying that he hoped they could work together on extending EITC to single low wage workers, building on the momentum of Saturday’s forum.

Still, many of the candidates this weekend advocated tax credits as an alternative to means-tested welfare programs, building on generally anti-government (or at least anti-federal government) themes.  Former Governors Chris Christie and Jeb Bush held up tax policy as a way to support work and self-sufficiency, over “safety net” programs (which some blamed for fostering dependence and a cycle of poverty). Many of the candidates fail to acknowledge that while the EITC has done a great job of helping low-wage workers get out of poverty, it is still a government benefit–funded by taxpayers just like food stamps or subsidized housing. Also, relying solely on the EITC puts more of our anti-poverty eggs into a proverbial basket that some see as a subsidy to low wage employers; forcing taxpayers to pay for the costs of meeting the needs of workers who make less than a living wage.

It’s hardly fair to denigrate welfare and federal poverty programs, only to replace them with solutions that are in part forms of corporate welfare for low wage employers.

The richest country in the world should be able to sustain an economy that is healthy and fair. People who are willing and able to work at a full-time job should be able to earn enough money to support their families and have opportunities to climb the ladder out of poverty.

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