Today, top Republicans like Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan are looking to soften their image on poverty, uneasy at the prospect of a Democratic Party preparing to pummel them mercilessly over their eagerness to cut food stamps and unemployment benefits. It’s particularly opportune given that today is the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

But their proposals fall short. Instead of addressing the definitional problem of poverty — namely, that the poor don’t have enough money — they retreat into vague rhetoric and window dressing.

This is a bit disappointing. Last week, conservative reformist Michael Strain published an article outlining a conservative jobs agenda. It was actually quite a bold piece; if you look past the Obama-bashing there was some real policy meat there that could make a serious dent in unemployment. Aside from the details of the plan, the key point is that Strain acknowledged that any jobs plan will necessarily involve allocating some resources — practically speaking, by spending some money. Strain suggests some infrastructure spending, for example.

Unfortunately, that boldness is precisely what is missing from today’s new Republican anti-poverty agenda. Consider Marco Rubio’s address he gave today: there are two policy changes in it. First, turn welfare programs over to the states; second, replace the earned income tax credit with a “wage enhancement” for “qualifying low-wage jobs.” Rand Paul has suggested “economic freedom zones,” in which small areas get the usual dose of tax cuts and deregulation. Or here’s the agenda of other Republicans, including Mike Lee, Paul Ryan, and Eric Cantor, as summarized by Annie Lowry and Ashley Parker:

Republicans are offering a series of proposals to help more Americans rise out of poverty: attaching or reinstating work requirements to safety-net programs, streamlining federal offices, improving training and education initiatives, and offering tax breaks to the needy.

All these are, basically, window dressing. Work requirements for welfare, improving job training, and Paul’s freedom zones are all supply-side policies that don’t change the overall level of poverty when there aren’t enough jobs. Unloading welfare onto states would likely make things worse, since every state but Vermont must balance their budgets, and therefore would slash poverty programs during recessions, precisely when they’re most needed. “Automatic stabilizers” would cease to be automatic in a mandatory balanced-budget environment. Tax breaks are potentially better — but Rubio’s one proposal to spend money is paid for by axing the EITC, a highly-successful anti-poverty tax credit.

By contrast, while Strain’s piece has many conservative shibboleths, he does not pretend you can solve mass unemployment by tinkering around the edges of the labor supply. Big problems require big solutions.

The problem with conservative thinking on poverty and unemployment is they can’t get around the idea of desert. They tend to blame people who are unemployed or poor for their plight. They like to attach work or drug testing requirements to any kind of poor support program, or eliminate them altogether to starve the unemployed into the job market. This leaves them unable to cope with society-wide problems that have nothing to do with individual mistakes.

Lyndon Johnson knew that if you want to fight poverty you must change the distribution of resources. Changing the incentive structure individuals can be a worthy goal, but that doesn’t address the background level of opportunity. Especially, as Paul Krugman notes today, when we take into account that today’s poverty is much, much more systemic than the poverty of the 60s and 70s. Back then, the economic was in fine shape, and poverty was arguably more related to terrible crime and other social decay.

But now we have chronic mass unemployment. The policy equivalent of scolding the poor and unemployed accomplishes nothing when median incomes have been flat for a generation and there are three jobs for every job seeker.

In any case, contrary to Rubio’s speech, Johnson’s War on Poverty was a huge success. Even today, after much hacking away at the safety net, it continues to work quite well, in concert with other similar programs:

Today’s safety net — which includes important programs and improvements both from the Johnson era and thereafter — cuts poverty nearly in half. In 2012, it kept 41 million people, including 9 million children, out of poverty, according to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM).  If government benefits are excluded, today’s poverty rate would be 29 percent under the SPM; with those benefits, the rate is 16 percent.

The most successful anti-poverty program in American history, Social Security, is a straight transfer of money. This is because the key cause of poverty is that people don’t have enough money. Until Republicans are willing to grapple with that fact, they will have no “poverty agenda” worthy of the name.


And a few Happy Hour links, courtesy of gs:

* Dave Weigel reports that GOP operatives are totally, absolutely, 100 percent convinced that repeating the word “Obamacare” for the next 11 months cannot fail to win them the Senate. The counterargument, from pollster Geoff Garin, who helped Terry McAuliffe win a race partly about the Medicaid expansion:

“In our post-election polling of our targets, we saw that this issue created a lot of motivation for drop off voters, particularly African-Americans, to turn out, and I expect it can play the same role in mobilization efforts in North Carolina, Louisiana, and Arkansas.”

Also note that Mary Landrieu, another embattled Dem, plans to blame Republicans for the refusal to opt in and the consequences that has had Louisiana residents who fell into the “Medicaid gap.”

* Chris Christie’s statement in response to the latest turn in the bridge scandal unequivocally declares he had no knowledge of his staffers’ actions.

FORT LEE – Emergency responders were delayed in attending to four medical situations – including one in which a 91-year-old woman lay unconscious – due to traffic gridlock caused by unannounced closures of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge, according to the head of the borough’s EMS department. The woman later died, borough records show.
In at least two of those instances, response time doubled, noted EMS coordinator Paul Favia, who documented those cases in a Sept. 10 letter to Mayor Mark Sokolich, which The Record obtained.

* Kevin Drum asks a good question: “Robert Gates thinks Obama was right. So why is he so down on him?”

* And a new Quinnipiac poll finds American support extending unemployment benefits by 58-37; independents support it by 54-41; and even 42 percent of Republicans agree.

Yeah, whatever. The House GOP majority is invulnerable, so who cares?