A simple test for Republicans on poverty

Sherrod Brown (Jeffrey MacMillan )

Sherrod Brown (Jeffrey MacMillan )

Republicans like Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, and Mike Lee have talked a lot about poverty lately. That’s a good thing. Senator But Sherrod Brown asks a good follow up question: If they want to do something to help the working poor, why don’t they support a currently existing bill to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit?

Brown has been pushing a bill called the Working Families Tax Relief Act of 2013, which would permanently extend the EITC — which, in general, is a policy device for helping poor people that Republicans support.  The bill, which would also extend the Child Tax Credit, is supported by at least three dozen Dems, such as Dick Durbin, Chuck Schumer, and Elizabeth Warren.

Republicans tend to like the EITC, which has conservative roots, because it doesn’t require employers to pay workers more, and since it’s a tax credit for those who work, it’s seen as an alternative to safety net solutions that lull people into a state of dependency (see Paul Ryan’s Hammock Theory of Poverty).

No Republicans have signed on. But now that Senators like Rubio and Lee are talking about poverty, Brown plans to ask them to join his bill.

“We’re hearing the right words coming from Republicans who say they want to address poverty in the name of religious teaching,” Brown told me today. “This is the easiest mechanism for helping people who are working hard for little money – it rewards their work.”

Brown’s bill would not only make the EITC permanent; it would expand it to childless adults — another goal Republicans have generally supported. One of the leading ideas Rubio laid out in his recent speech on poverty was something very similar to expanding the EITC to childless adults.  Rubio’s idea is for a “federal wage enhancement.” As Jonathan Cohn explains, the goal of Rubio’s plan is to “create a program in which childless adults get the same benefits as those with families.”

But as Cohn also details, Rubio is not willing to spend any extra money to do this, which would almost certainly mean taking money away from children to extend the tax credit to adults without children. Brown’s bill, of course, would require more spending. And this gets to a core problem with GOP efforts to craft a new poverty agenda: the unwillingness to spend more money to help poor people.

As Zachary Goldfarb put it in a piece exploring why Republicans are struggling to create such an agenda:

As they cast about for ideas, Republicans are struggling to find policies that match the simplicity and gut appeal of such Democratic proposals as raising the minimum wage without violating core conservative principles by increasing spending or interfering with market forces.

Republicans oppose the minimum wage hike partly because it would “interfere with market forces.” As it happens, liberals would prefer to combine the minimum wage hike with an expanded EITC, because the two would complement one another. Brown’s bill would not raise the minimum wage; it would only expand the EITC. But it still crosses the line into “increasing spending.” So it’s probably a non-starter for Republicans.

But that may be the Rubicon Republicans must cross to create a real poverty agenda. “There’s a lot of talk about how to address poverty,” Brown says. “But we need to put money into low income people’s pockets. That will reward their work, help them escape poverty, give them a rung on the latter to the middle class, and help the economy.”

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