Rubio Questions LBJ's Legacy On Poverty

On the 50th anniversary of President Johnson's declaration of a war on poverty, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio delivers a speech declaring the war a failure and outlining a plan of his own to help those living in poverty.

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We've been marking the 50th anniversary of the war on poverty from a number of perspectives. Now, the Republican take. Republicans have long been critical of Lyndon Johnson's expansive approach to a federal safety net. Today, the Republican senator from Florida, Marco Rubio, proposed what he says is a better way forward. His way? Take power away from Washington and give it to the states. NPR's Don Gonyea is here to tell us more. And, Don, first, give us some context. What was the setting for Senator Rubio's speech?

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Well, it was not coincidentally in the LBJ room of the Senate side of the U.S. Capitol. That was a place where LBJ worked for so many years before becoming vice president and then president. And there was a nod to LBJ's commitment to address what was a serious problem in the country back 50 years ago. Senator Rubio quoted President Johnson, the 1964 President Johnson, in saying it wouldn't be an easy struggle, that we shall not rest until the war is won. But he got to the critique pretty fast.

SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: He said that the war on poverty, the richest nation on Earth can afford to win it. And with those words, he foreshadowed the belief that's still held by liberals to this day, that government spending is the central answer to healing the wounds of poverty.

GONYEA: So in Rubio's portrayal, Johnson's war on poverty was really a big government effort. He didn't cite any of the progress that resulted from those programs over the decades. He focused instead in the tens of millions still struggling, still below the poverty line and with little chance of mobility today as examples of the ultimate failure, again, according to Rubio.

CORNISH: So what is Senator Rubio proposing?

GONYEA: Well, there's no legislation that's been written yet. But Rubio says they are not going to slash funding, but they're going to create a system that would work a lot more efficiently. It would create a single - what he calls a revenue neutral Flex Fund. Money from that fund would be given to states, states that would be allowed to design their own programs to help people.

RUBIO: It's wrong for Washington to tell Tallahassee what programs are right for the people of Florida. But it's particularly wrong for it to say that what's right for Tallahassee is the same thing that's right for Topeka and Sacramento and Detroit and Manhattan and every other town, city and state in the country.

CORNISH: Certainly, a familiar refrain on many issues from the GOP, send it back to the states.

GONYEA: Exactly. It's the kind of block grant program that Republicans have long championed, going back decades now. This one would be far bigger than anything that's been done. Obviously, it would count on states being much more efficient, laboratories being more experimental, being more nimble. And it assumes that all of that would work far better than the currently federally administered programs.

CORNISH: So that's the message. What about the messenger? Why Rubio as the main voice for the GOP on the anniversary of the war on poverty?

GONYEA: He remains a rising star, still a freshman U.S. senator from an important state, Florida. He served in the Florida legislature, was speaker of the Florida House, so he does have experience on the state level, administering programs and designing programs. So he can speak about this from some authority.

He also has a very compelling backstory. Cuban-American - Cuban immigrant parents, rose up from poverty. He did get crosswise earlier this year on immigration with conservatives. This is a chance for him to change the subject.

CORNISH: National political correspondent Don Gonyea. Don, thank you.

GONYEA: Thank you.

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