Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida delivers a speech on reforming antipoverty programs on the 50th Anniversary of President Johnson's declaration of the "War on Poverty."
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida delivers a speech on reforming antipoverty programs on the 50th Anniversary of President Johnson's declaration of the "War on Poverty." Kevin Dietsch/UPI/Landov
It was a two-step move for Republicans at the Capitol Wednesday: to both praise the sentiment of the War on Poverty – but also to critique it.
"We are here to mark the 50th anniversary of President Johnson's declaration of the War on Poverty," said Rep. Steve Southerland of Florida. "And while this war may have been launched with the best of intentions, it's clear we're now engaged in a battle for attrition."
As Democrats talk about refining the effort Johnson set in motion, Republicans say it needs wholesale changes. As members of the Republican Study Committee spelled out at Wednesday's news conference, the GOP sees the federal program as a failure of big government and say states know best how to help the poor.
"How do we grow this economy, create jobs, get people working again? Those are the policies we need to be focused on," said Michigan Rep. Dave Camp. "One of them is tax reform. And I think that is one that would actually bring us a stronger economy, more investment and the kinds of job creation that we need to see. That means more people get hired."
The group dismissed statistics showing the poverty rate in the country down in the past 50 years, instead citing the increase — as the overall population has grown — in the total number of Americans living below the poverty line.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida gave the most expansive remarks from a leading Republican. Speaking in the LBJ room in the Capitol Building, Rubio ran the numbers, pointing to job losses due to economic changes resulting in the big decline of high wage/low skill work in the U.S.
He said the economy needs lower taxes and fewer regulations and described a failure to retrain workers to obtain the skills needed to advance.
"We have 4 million Americans who have been out of work for six months or more," he said. "We have a staggering 49 million Americans living below the poverty line. We have over twice that number — over 100 million people — who get some sort of food aid from the federal government.
"Meanwhile, our labor participation force is at a 35-year low, and children raised in the bottom 20 percent of national income have a 42 percent chance of being stuck there for life," he continued.
Rubio said Americans shouldn't look to Washington for the answers. He proposed taking federal safety-net money and giving it to the states.
"Our anti-poverty programs should be replaced with a revenue-neutral 'flex fund'," he said. "We would streamline most of our existing federal anti-poverty funding into a single agency. Then each year, these flex funds would be transferred to the states so they can design and fund creative initiatives that address the factors behind inequality of opportunity."
It's an approach Republicans have long favored, but critics counter that block grants are a way to starve programs of funding.
Rubio says there are no specific proposals to be formally introduced in Congress just yet.