Republicans and poverty: A discussion worth having

Jeff Keeling, Associate Editor

Jeff Keeling, Associate Editor

By Jeff Keeling

National security and reversing Obamacare are among several red meat issues to Republicans, but there was also some strange brew cooking at the party’s retreat this past weekend. I hope that brew will get some ongoing attention in the GOP issues kitchen, such that it can be served up as something more than just an unsubstantial side dish.

I’m talking about poverty, and more specifically what the government should do to try and alleviate it. If what has to date been a small group of Republicans focused on the subject doesn’t manage to get some broader traction with the issue party-wide, two unfortunate outcomes may occur. The first is strategic. The second is existential, and therefore much more important.

One doesn’t have to be a political junkie to know the Democratic party spends time and energy trying to discover ways to address the problem of poverty. Republican leaders, on the other hand, have come at the issue in fits and starts. Often, they ignore it, or worse yet, make insensitive pronouncements about “makers versus takers” and “welfare queens.”

Members of the left gleefully make hay of such foot-in-mouth comments. Republicans, they say, don’t, can’t, and never will represent the interests of the poor (or the middle class, for that matter). I sincerely hope the lefties’ comments are hogwash, meant as much to maintain voting blocs as they are to express sincere disappointment with the supposed heartlessness of a party that still represents 40 percent of Americans.

If the left is correct, then we as a country are left to confront poverty with a sadly imbalanced approach. No matter what anyone may tell you, it just doesn’t serve our nation well when one side or another dominates the discussion and policymaking on a major issue. People from either side have important arguments to make about the best way to approach foreign policy, and the same holds true for domestic issues.

Over the past couple of years, now-House Speaker Paul Ryan, the Republican Congressman from Wisconsin who was heartily skewered as the one who said “we’re going to a majority of takers versus makers in America,” has been among Republicans trying to craft a GOP anti-poverty platform. Ryan has been outspoken about including this in the discussion over last weekend, and bringing specific policy proposals forward in Congress.

The Brookings Institution’s Elizabeth Kneebone wrote in 2014 that Ryan’s contention that “opportunity grants,” meant to consolidate a bevy of federal anti-poverty programs, could indeed address “a very real problem.” What she calls, “a fragmented and inflexible federal anti-poverty policy framework” has, she wrote, “failed to respond to today’s shifting geography of poverty (and) often impeded more efficient and effective strategies to address poverty in struggling communities.”

Now, either Paul Ryan and his small band of GOP allies are sincere and serious about fighting poverty or they aren’t, but one thing’s for sure – the Brookings Institution is no bastion of conservatism. So when one of the fellows in its Metropolitan Policy Program takes Ryan’s proposals circa 2014 seriously enough to parse them and give them some credence, I gain some hope that maybe Ryan is serious.

Rest assured, Republican noises about poverty will continue to receive derision from both the left and the right, for different reasons. To the left, Ryan and his ilk are impostors, impertinently treading where they have no right to tread and probably doing so for purely political reasons. To some on the right, they are self-aggrandizing fools, working to craft complicated, ineffective policies when the effective solution is, per Ann Coulter, “Don’t pay people not to work.”

I choose to hope, as Elizabeth Kneebone apparently does, that Ryan and company’s work represent, “the opening salvos of a real debate in Washington about how to fight poverty more effectively in this country.” Kneebone found plenty of holes in Ryan’s 2014 opportunity grant proposal, but if she thought the current approach to fighting poverty was sufficient, she wouldn’t be calling for a debate.

If, indeed, there is to be a real debate about this issue, a sufficient number of Republican politicians will have to consider it a serious enough issue to merit their time and attention. I believe important aspects of conservative philosophy have much to add to the poverty discussion, including the belief that people should be rewarded for hard work and should aspire to a better life as an outgrowth of that hard work.

If the GOP abandons its role in the debate or only pays it occasional lip service, we’ll all be the worse for it.



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