Republicans Pipe In About Poverty and Inequality

Poverty and income inequality have long been staples of the Democratic Party platform, but they haven't often been high priorities. This year, that appears to be changing, and what's more, some Republicans seem eager to join the conversation.

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Today's surprise vote in the Senate suggests a new twist in the longstanding debate over poverty, unemployment and income inequality. Democrats are sharpening their focus on these issues, as is the president, who'll tackle income inequality in his State of the Union address later this month. But a number of Republicans are now venturing on to this traditionally Democratic turf. And to find out why, we turn to NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: So, the Republican House recently voted to cut food stamps. And most lawmakers there didn't want to extend unemployment benefits. So why are they suddenly interested in poverty and income inequality?

LIASSON: Well, something is happening that's new, and it's that Republicans are actually acknowledging that there is an income inequality problem. And, more seriously for Republicans, who don't usually worry too much about inequality by itself, there's also an income mobility problem. It's harder and harder for people to move up the ladder. So that's why you're starting to hear Republicans like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich say this on CNN.

NEWT GINGRICH: I think every Republican should be concerned about inequality. I think when you have places where there are billionaires living in a city with 22,000 homeless children, anybody who has a sense of decency has to be concerned.

LIASSON: You also have Paul Ryan, the former vice presidential candidate and current budget chairman in the House. He's going to be talking about poverty on NBC on Thursday. Tomorrow, on the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson's declaration of a war on poverty, Marco Rubio - Senator Rubio, possible presidential candidate in 2016, will be giving a speech about reforming federal poverty programs at the American Enterprise Institute. So there's a lot of ferment about this in the Republican Party.

CORNISH: But at this point, does the Republican Party have an anti-poverty policy agenda?

LIASSON: Not yet. There are ideas floating around. Mike Lee, the Tea Party-backed senator, wants to expand the earned income tax credit. Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader, has been focusing on school choice. Rand Paul wants to create Jack Kemp-style economic freedom zones. And Marco Rubio wants to block grants in federal poverty programs, give the states more flexibility to run them. Here's how Rubio previewed his poverty speech on YouTube.

SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: This isn't a time to declare big government's war on poverty a failure. Instead of continuing to borrow and spend trillions of dollars on government programs that don't work, what our nation needs is a real agenda that helps people acquire the skills they need to lift themselves out of poverty and to pursue the American dream.

LIASSON: Rubio goes on to say that this agenda, which he'll be laying out over the next several months, would create good paying, middle-class jobs, less government debt and it would, of course, repeal Obamacare.

CORNISH: And the politics around this issue have always been complicated. And we often hear a lot of bashing of big government welfare programs. Is this more of that or is there a sense that they're trying to appeal to poor and struggling middle class people?

LIASSON: Well, that's a good question because in the past, when Republicans have talked about the poor, with very few exceptions, it's been because they wanted to convince middle class voters that they weren't hard-hearted meanies. They didn't just care about everybody but the 47 percent. But now, Republicans have a real incentive to get some Hispanic and minority votes because the white vote is shrinking but also because income inequality and lack of mobility is a real political problem.

People are really worried, not so much about the poor. They're worried they might fall into poverty or their children might. So Republicans are trying to marry their traditional attacks on big government and government handouts in welfare to a more constructive approach to a very real economic problem. It's very much a work in progress, how to create a conservative vision that will improve economic mobility other than just telling the government to get out of the way.

CORNISH: Short time left, Mara, but President Obama has income inequality and raising the minimum wage at the center of his agenda. Where do Republicans stand on that?

LIASSON: Most Republicans are opposed to raising the minimum wage, although this is an idea that's extremely popular with voters, including Republicans. But it is against the free market, anti-government philosophy of the GOP.

CORNISH: That's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you.

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