Listening to Republican politicians these days as they talk (and talk and talk) about poverty and inequality can be a poignant experience. They want us to know they’re worried about the diminishing economic prospects confronted by so many Americans. They hope we will admire their shiny new solutions. And they are so eager for us to believe they care.
But however concerned these Republican worthies may be, they still insist on promoting the same exhausted and useless ideas favored by their party for decades. The sad result is that almost nobody believes that they care at all — and their “anti-poverty initiatives” tend to be dismissed, with a snicker, as public relations rather than public policy.
Of course, it would be easier to feel sorry for these would-be saviors of the poor if they tried just a little harder. How long have conservatives been advising the poor that their lot would improve if only they found religion? That pious attitude dates back beyond Dickens — but Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, House Budget Committee chair and Mitt Romney running mate, seems to feel it qualifies him as a deep and sensitive thinker. (As a Catholic, however, Ryan should note that Pope Francis doesn’t think prayer will suffice for the excluded and impoverished. Instead, His Holiness urges governments to act boldly on their behalf.)
The latest example of rhetorical failure is Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican whose eager quest for national relevance has yet to achieve traction. Marking the 50th anniversary of former President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of a “war on poverty,” Rubio delivered what aides billed as a major address on the topic, filled with fresh and brilliant policy alternatives to “big government.”
What little content could be found in Rubio’s speech — leaving aside the worn homilies about the land of opportunity and his toiling ancestors — was a Reagan-era plan to devolve federal anti-poverty programs to the states, as “block grants,” plus a vague scheme to transform the successful earned-income tax credit into something different, with details to arrive someday.
The entire speech consisted of such thin and indigestible gruel, which the worst workhouse would have hesitated to serve its downtrodden clientele a century or so ago. Even the undeserving poor deserve better.
Much as conservatives like Rubio repeatedly tell us, that local and state programs are always better than federal, there isn’t much evidence to support the claim. They should listen to their own constant complaining about the unacceptable quality of public education, which is almost entirely administered by towns, counties and states — and contrasts nicely with Social Security and Medicare, the two most effective remedies for poverty ever devised in this country.
Does Rubio propose that the government should turn these popular and efficient programs into block grants and send the money to the states? He would be chased out of Florida with tar and feathers if he were to dare.
Whether it is Rubio’s Reaganesque retread or Ryan’s cold spiritual comfort, we have seen and heard it all before. Their point seems aimed less at addressing human need than at preventing serious action — as when Rubio poses his “wage-enhancement” scheme as a better choice than raising the minimum wage, or when Ryan praises church charities while cutting food stamps.
But if we reject these cruel follies, how can government help the poor — and restore a measure of equity and decency to the economy?
A substantial increase in the minimum wage, which would raise earnings for all the working poor, is the beginning. A federal commitment to universal pre-kindergarten schooling, proven effective from Europe to deep-red Oklahoma, would be valuable. And a national infrastructure bank, as part of a real program to rebuild the nation’s decaying transportation, energy, recreation and education systems, would be a significant step toward full employment — the true antidote to hopelessness.
Yes, these things would surely cost money. But they would just as surely save money — a lot of money, as in trillions of dollars. Rebuilding bridges and roads is far cheaper today, when interest rates are low, than when they tumble down years from now. Raising the minimum wage requires no federal dollars and saves the government from subsidizing low-wage employers. The estimated return on universal pre-K is roughly $17 for every buck spent — because those fortunate children tend to stay out of jail, off welfare and in taxpaying jobs.
It is time to stop pretending that we can solve national problems by shuffling inadequate budgets around and praying for mercy. It is time to do something — and we already know what to do.
Joe Conason is a nationally syndicated columnist.