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For Republicans, the Decline of Social Mobility is a Crisis

Why is the GOP suddenly talking poverty? Because it's harder to defend capitalism now.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images

A little platoon of high-profile Republican members of Congress, most of whom harbor national ambitions, has stepped forward in recent weeks to make the case for a more activist GOP policy toward the problem of poverty. A number of conservative intellectuals have also been weighing in. It’s doubtful that a wide-ranging conservative anti-poverty agenda is about to become the first plank in the GOP platform any time soon. But the felt need among Republicans to speak to the issue is an indication of how the domestic policy debate has been shifting.

There are several causes underlying this shift, some on the right and some on the left, some substantive and some political. I would usually give the political motivations consideration first, on the perhaps cynical grounds that where a politician’s interest goes, his or her heart will follow. But with one exception—Obama and the Democrats’ pushback against social inequality—calculations of political interest haven’t changed that much, and the pressure from Democrats on the subject has not been enough by itself to force a new line out of the GOP.

So, substance anyone? First up, I think, is a certain Pope Francis. Although the Catholic Church is far less politically salient in electoral politics than it was before the pedophilia scandal—when in many places politicians both Republican and Democratic would avoid provoking a confrontation on Church teachings—if anybody is going to put the fear of God back into the system, paradoxically, it’s the amiable Francis. His shift in priorities to an evangelization that reaches out to people where they are, whoever they are, has already unsettled the more doctrinally conservative American amici Pontifex. Now, his remarks on the insufficiency of the capitalist system and his evident distress with its unequal outcomes are threatening to undo the Church’s thirty-years truce with “liberalization” in the classical sense.

As it happens, the amici pecuniarium are hardly without arguments in response to the Pope. The hundreds of millions of Chinese who have managed to exit poverty and join the ranks of the global middle class over the past couple decades owe their improved material circumstances to the workings of markets, not the fine sentiments of the clergy, let alone Mao’s can’t-make-an-omelet-without-breaking-eggs-style ruthless egalitarianism. But Francis has opened or reopened a front to which a certain kind of conservative politician, probably but not necessarily Catholic, must pay attention. A defense of capitalism these days requires an answer to the question: “What about the poor?” And the reply, “you will always have the poor among you, [so what’s the big deal?],” is a misreading of the relevant Scripture passage.

More broadly, the moral defense of capitalism in America must now grapple with a social reality that used to cut in its favor, namely, social mobility. Being poor is worse if it means you are permanently stuck in poverty than if you have a reasonable expectation of working yourself out of it, or at least that your children will be able to. This mobility was once a marquee feature of the American dream. Recent measurements suggest that social mobility isn’t what it used to be, however, and that’s a problem. It’s certainly a worse problem for those on the bottom, but there is something a little unsettling about “too rich to fail” as well: Certainly the conservative literature in defense of capitalism has granted special resonance to the cases of the dissolute sons and daughters of great wealth who managed to blow the family fortune rather than augment it. Here, too, was a kind of fairness to the system.

So to those who say that the GOP’s new anti-poverty focus isn’t about the poor but rather middle-class suburban women who want to feel better about feeling good about the poor; or that it’s just an attempt to rescue the party from the political damage of Mitt Romney’s heartfelt if inept remark about the unreachable 47 percent of Americans supposedly too dependent on government to consider taking personal responsibility for their lives; or that it’s simply a GOP have-to, lest Democrats’ new agitation over inequality go unanswered and gain purchase, I say: The problem is deeper than that.

It’s worth noting that the GOP has intermittently flirted with a commitment to an anti-poverty agenda before, most notably the urban “empowerment” agenda associated with the late Jack Kemp. And George W. Bush, the “compassionate conservative,” did indeed launch an initiative, PEPFAR, that has probably saved more lives abroad than any since Herbert Hoover’s famine relief effort following World War I.

Yet one gets the sense that this time with conservatives, the issue is more fundamental. The GOP anti-poverty rhetoric goes in several directions, but the central focus seems to be on restoring conditions conducive to upward social mobility (non-Big Government initiatives, that is). That’s because before conservatives are willing to face up to the prospect of defending a capitalist system in which the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor, they would like to exhaust conservative policy options designed to promote mobility.

Conservatives often say that “class warfare” doesn’t work in American politics, for the elemental reason that even people of modest circumstances envision themselves climbing the social ladder and maybe even becoming rich one day. Whether “class warfare” still doesn’t work in the absence of social mobility is a question no one on the right wants to test. Meanwhile, 500 million Chinese can’t be wrong.

Tod Lindberg (@todlindberg) is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford.