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Republicans Discover Poverty. Now What?

It's hard to help the little guy when you hate the safety net

Rod Lamkey/Getty

Don’t look now, but poverty is apparently having its moment, right up there with egg creams and stroller derbies. After years of being relegated to the political consultants’ do-not-touch list, it’s now on everyone’s lips. The new mayor of New York won’t stop talking about it, the new head of the Roman Catholic Church won’t stop preaching about it and, yes, even the Republicans are in the game. Paul Ryan has been making secret (or not so secret) visits to impoverished corners of the country, Rand Paul is proposing ways to rescue Detroit and other beleaguered cities, and Newt Gingrich is proclaiming: “I think every Republican should embrace the Pope’s core critique that you do not want to live on a planet with billionaires and people who do not have any food. I think the Pope may, in fact, be starting a conversation at the exact moment the Republican Party itself needs to have that conversation.”

It’s awfully tempting to dismiss the new conservative rhetoric of concern for the poor as a transparently cynical exercise in re-branding to head off a Democratic election-year attack. After all, not so long ago Paul Ryan was warning that “we could become a society where the net majority of Americans are takers, not makers” and calling the safety net a “hammock which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency,” Rand Paul was faulting Medicaid for creating “inter-generational welfare,” and Gingrich was mocking President Obama as the “food stamp president.”

But in the spirit of the new year, let’s try and take the new rhetoric at face value. The fact is, there was a time when the Republican Party was actively engaged in addressing poverty, as I’ve been reminded in reading Geoffrey Kabaservice’s excellent Rule and Ruin, a history of moderate Republicanism in the second half of the 20th century. It was George Romney, governor of Michigan and father of Mitt, who embarked on a late 1960s tour of inner-city ghettos to better understand what was driving the urban race riots. It was Richard Nixon who as president seriously flirted with instituting a guaranteed annual income as an alternative to the anti-poverty policies of his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson (whose “War on Poverty” speech was made 50 years ago this week). Why not take today’s Republicans at their word that they, too, are eager to engage on the issue?

Well, maybe because, as Josh Barro notes, “Republicans have no legislative agenda that would address poverty.” I’ll quote Barro at some length here because he puts it as well as one can:

Broadly there are two poverty problems in the United States. One is a cyclical trend: The labor market has been slack for the last five years, leaving many people involuntarily unemployed and limiting workers' ability to bargain for higher wages. The other is secular: Labor's share of national income is declining, wages are rising more slowly for low-skilled workers than high-skilled ones, and rises in family income at the bottom have come primarily through fiscal transfers, not wages.

These problems require different solutions, and Republican ideas don't address either. On the cyclical side, Republicans favor a variety of policies that would make the unemployed and marginally employed worse off. They want to cut government benefits to the poor: they oppose extension of emergency Unemployment Insurance benefits, they want modest cuts to food stamps, they want to repeal the Medicaid expansion.

Of course, Republicans don't want the poor to live off government benefits; they want them to get jobs. Unfortunately, Republicans also oppose macroeconomic policies to promote full employment, such as deficit spending, infrastructure investment, and monetary stimulus. The Republican theory seems to be that if the government "just got out of the way" by cutting taxes, spending and regulation, then labor market would magically tighten, people would get jobs, and wages would rise. Empirical evidence for this proposition is lacking.

Saying that the Republicans lack an agenda to address poverty does not necessarily mean that they need to endorse every Democratic proposal—even back in the heyday of the George Romney moderates, Republicans opposed some New Deal and Great Society measures as too top-down or unwieldy or big-government. But, unlike today, they proposed real alternatives. If Republicans today believe that raising the minimum wage is too much of a burden on small business, they could pass a major expansion of the earned-income tax credit, as conservative economist Greg Mankiw suggests. If they believe that extended unemployment benefits are discouraging some workers from taking available jobs, they could seek to more narrowly target extended benefits to make sure they’re available to those who the data shows have the cards most stacked against them—say, by age or location. If they believe the food stamp program and other elements of the War on Poverty really have failed—despite ample evidence to the contrary—they can go back to the Nixon or Romney toolbox of the ‘60s and early ‘70s for the approaches they think may have worked better.

But aside from the occasional highly touted speeches by a senator here or there, there are no active efforts along these lines (though notably, six Senate Republicans this morning decided to buck the party line and support reinstating extended unemployment benefits, kicking the issue over to the House). Meanwhile, on some fronts, the Republican line is worse than non-existent—it is willfully deleterious. Take the opposition to expanding Medicaid in two dozen GOP-controlled states, despite the fact that the federal government will cover virtually the entire cost. Sure, we can debate just how much being covered by Medicaid does or does not improve the health of the working poor. But there is simply no question that coverage improves the financial situation of the poor by reducing the likelihood of disastrous medical bills and bankruptcy. And right now, many states, including wealthy ones such as Virginia, have decided to keep eligibility at levels so stringent that a parent needs to be earning well less than $10,000 to qualify—and a non-disabled childless adult has no hope of getting covered whatsoever.

If Republicans care about poverty as much as they now say, they would do well to heed the words of Ohio’s Republican governor, John Kasich, when he decided to expand Medicaid to cover 275,000 more Ohioans: “For those who live in the shadows of life, for those who are the least among us, I will not accept the fact that the most vulnerable in our state should be ignored.” Or as he added on another recent occasion: “I’m concerned about the fact there seems to be a war on the poor. That if you’re poor, somehow you’re shiftless and lazy.” Or again: “When you die and get to the meeting with Saint Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer.”

How have Republicans let themselves come to this pass, with the cupboard so bare of ideas for how to help those with bare cupboards? Well, partly because their base allows and encourages it. Surveys by the Pew Research Center have traced a plunge over the past two decades, accelerating in the past few years, when it comes to Republican voters’ support for a safety net:

Since 2007, Republican support for the safety net has declined significantly even as Democrats continue to support government assistance to the poor and needy as they have over the last 25 years. As a result, although the safety net has long been one of the areas where the opinions of Republicans and Democrats most diverge, the current party gap is now larger than ever.

Majorities of Republicans now say they disagree that the government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep (36% agree, 63% disagree) and take care of people who can’t take care of themselves (40% agree, 54% disagree). As recently as 2009, Republican opinions on these questions were more evenly divided.

Republicans also have consistently disagreed with the statement that: “the government should help more needy people even if it means going deeper in debt”; 76% now say they disagree, an increase of 15 points since 2007. At the same time, Democratic positions on these items have been relatively stable over the last quarter century. Three-fourths (75%) now agree that the government should take care of those who can’t take care of themselves. Similarly, 78% say basic food and shelter should be government guarantees and 65% think more support for the needy should be provided, even in the face of increased debt.

Where does this growing gap in the electorate come from? We’ll leave that to the political scientists, but it surely does not help matters that for years now, Republican voters have been hearing their leaders ridicule “welfare queens,” “food stamp presidents,” and “hammocks.” Which means that, who knows, perhaps the new rhetoric from conservatives might just be helpful in its own right in readjusting attitudes. More likely, though, rank-and-file Republicans, like the rest of us, will not take their leaders’ talk on poverty seriously until there is something to back it up.