The War Over Poverty: A Deep Divide On How To Help On the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" speech, the clash between Republicans and Democrats on how to alleviate poverty has come front and center. Republicans insist that anti-poverty programs have failed; Democrats say they have worked and should be expanded.
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The War Over Poverty: A Deep Divide On How To Help

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The War Over Poverty: A Deep Divide On How To Help


Members of Congress are keenly aware of the unemployment numbers because, of course, their jobs are on the line when voters go to the polls in November. Many Republicans hope that popular discontent with Obamacare will help them stay in their jobs. Many Democrats hope that a lot of Americans are concerned with those still struggling by. And now many Republicans say that they also care about the plight of the poor. NPR's David Welna has this report.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: All this week, majority leader Harry Reid declared over and over on the Senate floor that there's a downside to this recovering economy.

SENATOR HARRY REID: It's true. The rich are getting a whole lot richer and the poor are getting poorer.

WELNA: That observation may not be surprising coming from a Democrat, even though his party controls the White House and half of Congress. Less expected, perhaps, is a similar lament made the same day by the Senate's Republican leader, Mitch McConnell.

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: We all know the stock market's been doing great, so the richest among us are doing just fine. But what about the poor? What about working-class folks?

WELNA: Those comments came the same week as studies showed that more than half the members of Congress are millionaires. Still, Susan Collins, the Senate Republican up for reelection in Maine, insists members of both parties are compassionate and that they do agree...

SENATOR SUSAN COLLINS: ...that income inequality is a real issue, that the lack of jobs is a serious problem. The question is what do we do about it?

WELNA: The two parties' deep differences over dealing with these issues were readily apparent on Wednesday, the 50th anniversary of President Johnson's declaration of war on poverty. Hawaii Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono called that effort a success.

SENATOR MAZIE HIRONO: The national poverty rate has gone down from 26 percent in 1967 to 16 percent in 2012. Without safety net programs, the poverty rate would have climbed to 29 percent.

WELNA: But Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio marked the anniversary with a speech in Johnson's old Senate office highlighting the continued problems of poverty.

SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: It will not be solved by continuing with the same stale Washington ideas. Five decades and trillions of dollars after President Johnson first announced a war on poverty, the results of the big government approach are in.

WELNA: And in an interview with NBC's Brian Williams, another Republican, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan was asked what grade he'd give the war on poverty.

REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN: I would give us a failing grade. It has failed. We should have done better than this. We can do better than this.

WELNA: Both Ryan and Rubio want more local control over anti-poverty programs. Meanwhile, the Senate is debate whether Congress should restore jobless benefits to more than a million long-term unemployed people who lost them two weeks ago. GOP McConnell voted to block that aid.

MCCONNELL: Because it's only when you believe government is answer to all of your problems that you talk about unemployment insurance instead of job creation.

WELNA: Most Senate Republicans voted to block extending the unemployment payments. They did so invoking fiscal rectitude. John Hoeven is a Republican from North Dakota, the state with the nation's lowest unemployment.

SENATOR JOHN HOEVEN: You've got to find a way to pay for these programs so we don't keep increasing the debt and deficit, which hurts the economy.

WELNA: Democrats say extending unemployment benefits actually helps the economy, as well as those who receive them. Their next goal is to raise the federal minimum wage. That won't be forgotten come election time, says New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer.

SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER: The issue of which party can address the needs of the middle class and a decline in income and the need for better-paying jobs is going to win the election, plain and simple. Not this party that's, you know, figures out the best solution on Obamacare and not the party who figures out the best solution on the deficit. This is the issue. The world is changing.

WELNA: It's a different world, he adds, than a year ago. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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