New York Times editors are getting nervous. An online headline on Wednesday declared: “Republicans Moving to Claim Poverty as Issue for the G.O.P” — as if the Democratic Party had proprietary rights on the topic. But liberals should be nervous; Republicans are beginning to sound empathetic and creative. (Imagine!) You have to admire the ability of the Times’s reporters to cast heartfelt policy work as nothing more than image primping. No bias there, no siree.
Yesterday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) spoke at the center-left Brookings Institution about educational reform as a way of combating poverty. “For many families, living in poverty spans generations. Parents and grandparents struggled to realize the American dream. School choice is the surest way to break this vicious cycle of poverty and we must act fast before it is too late for too many.” He did not spare the administration, first turning to the Louisiana Scholarship Program:
Unfortunately, this program is now under threat. Attorney General Holder and the Justice Department took Louisiana to court, claiming that its Education Opportunity program impedes progress made through desegregation. In other words, the Attorney General is accusing the state of using this program to discriminate against minorities. This kind of attack on an effective program that helps everyone — providing opportunity scholarships to kids of every background — is political payback to those who oppose school choice. They see school choice as a threat. And they are right. School choice is a threat to the status quo. School choice protects families and children, not bureaucracies. . . . After repeated calls to do so, the Attorney General withdrew his initial request to permanently shut down the program. However, he is still demanding that the federal government have a veto right over each child’s scholarship award and that parents cannot be notified about their child’s scholarship until it receives federal approval.
He went on to praise New York City’s charter school program (almost daring left-wing Mayor Bill de Blasio to disrupt it) and castigating the president for trying to defund D.C.’s scholarship program.
He then set out the Republicans’ idea: “In July of last year, we passed the Student Success Act. This bill was built around the idea that we should learn from one another’s successes and build on improvements that are delivering real results for children and the schools they attend. The act will help expand education opportunity by providing incentives for states to replicate high-quality charter schools. The bill provides for improved tutoring and public school choice opportunities, and it requires that school systems provide parents access to information about the performance of their local schools. Parents can then actually hold schools accountable for the quality of education their children receive.”
A solid speech, a terrific issue for conservatives, a bill of particulars against the liberals beholden to the teachers union and a concrete, viable proposal — a model for other Republicans trying to further conservative policy.
Meanwhile, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was speaking on poverty at the Capitol. His effort was sincere but he perhaps devoted too much time to the familiar nostrums that the War on Poverty waged by liberals didn’t do what it was supposed to and that a lot of the problem is rooted in the patterns of family breakdown in inner cities. One suspects he plows familiar terrain because his proposals are somewhat thin: Tax reform (but poor people were largely taken off the income-tax rolls) and sending anti-poverty programs to the states, essentially Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) block-grant proposal. The most interesting idea was “to replace the earned-income tax credit with a federal wage enhancement for qualifying low-wage jobs. This would allow an unemployed individual to take a job that pays, say, $18,000 a year — which, on its own, is not enough to make ends meet — but then receive a federal enhancement to make the job a more enticing alternative to collecting unemployment insurance.” He continued, “Unlike the earned-income tax credit, my proposal would apply the same to singles as it would to married couples and families with children. It would also be a preferable means of distributing benefits since it would arrive in sync with a monthly paycheck rather than a year-end lump-sum credit. And it’s a better way of supporting low-income workers than simply raising the minimum wage.” Next time he should give an entire speech on just that — and forgo the long-winded history lesson.
He also suggested the federal government could create “pathways” to alternative credentialing programs. It wasn’t clear what he meant or whether this was borrowed from previous speeches he has given on education reform.
But Rubio deserves credit, as do Cantor, Ryan and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who are working on these new and interesting ways to marry free markets and government encouragement for upward mobility. Conservative ideas — decentralized, flexible, parent-driven and supportive of communities and families — should appeal to the vast majority of Americans and expose how beholden the Democratic Party is to public-employee unions and their members (who operate the vast federal bureaucracies).
The debate over the best way to combat poverty is meaningful and important. Democrats and Republicans should engage, and voters can decide which vision, based on decades of experience, makes the most sense.