The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Reminder: Most Republicans care deeply about the poor

(L-R) Speaker Paul Ryan, U.S. Senator Tim Scott and U.S. Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush, Ben Carson and Governor Chris Christie participate in a forum at the 2016 Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity in Columbia, South Carolina, January 9, 2016. The forum featured six presidential candidates and focused on their ideas for fighting poverty and expanding opportunity in America. (Randall Hill/Reuters)

Last month, six GOP presidential candidates met in South Carolina to discuss something of a lapsed issue for the Republican Party: helping the poor. The Jan. 9 forum, co-hosted by House Speaker Paul Ryan, played out like a hallucination of the primary season party leaders had hoped for. The tone was compassionate and inclusive. People debated, in depth, real policies. And Donald Trump was nowhere to be seen.

For Paul Ryan, the moment was a minor triumph. Ryan has been striving since the last presidential election to make poverty the GOP’s next big issue. As RNC chairman Reince Priebus argued in 2013, the party’s long-term success depends on shedding its image as the “party of the rich,” of the “narrow-minded” and the “out of touch.” A campaign to combat poverty using Republican principles could jumpstart that transformation.

Ryan takes the project so seriously that he cited it as one of his reasons for sitting out the 2016 race. “I wanted to make sure this got away from presidential politics,” he told Yahoo News’s Jon Ward last March. “I wanted to make sure that this got some distance from being seen as some personal ambitious project for a politician.”

But rise of Donald Trump dashed many dreams among the Republican establishment, among them Ryan’s plan to pivot the party toward fighting poverty. Instead, the GOP primary so far has dwelled on issues like immigration, terrorism, and Donald’s visceral dislike of Megyn Kelly.

And yet, could Ryan be right? Are Republicans craving for someone to speak out about poverty? Perhaps, according to a surprising statistic from a AP/NORC poll released last week. A majority of Republicans — 62 percent — said that “reducing poverty” was “very” or “extremely” important to them.

Out of the eleven different economic issues that people were asked about, poverty ranked as the third-most important topic overall. About 72 percent of Americans said that poverty was “very” or “extremely” important, behind “protecting the future of Social Security” (85 percent) and “reducing unemployment” (81 percent).

Among Democrats, poverty was the second-most important economic issue. Among Republicans, it was the seventh. Republicans felt more strongly about “cutting tax rates” and “reducing government regulation.”

The figures are a little fuzzy because of the poll’s margin of error, but they give a gist of the situation. Poverty is not one of the top economic priorities among self-identified Republicans — but then again a majority of them do say it is a vital concern.

On the other hand, Republicans were least interested in “reducing the gap between the rich and the poor” or “increasing the minimum wage. About a third of Republicans rated each issue “not very” or “not at all” important. It’s also worth pointing out that Republicans are more interested in “reforming welfare” than “reducing poverty.”

Aside from that brief episode in January, the GOP presidential campaigns have been rather silent on poverty. At the last presidential debate on Thursday, John Kasich was the only one to mention the “poor,” or hint at an idea for how to reform welfare. Kasich wants to shift more money to the states, which is also a central tenet of Ryan’s plan.

At the anti-poverty summit in January, Ryan tried to bring the conversation back to policy. “[I]f we want a mandate, then we need to offer ideas,” he said. “And if we want to offer ideas, then we need to actually have ideas.”

But Ryan’s proposals for lifting up the poor have been roundly criticized. Mainly, he would shutter current federal programs like food stamps, bundle up the money, and give it all to the states. This is an old GOP idea. Block-granting was central feature of Clinton-era welfare reform — and it has been blamed for ripping up the safety net for the poor. When states were put in charge of managing some of these dollars, many demonstrated that there is too much temptation to siphon the money away, or to raise the bar for welfare so high that few qualify.

There’s ample opportunity for Republicans to make bold, new proposals to combat poverty. Take job training for instance. Any welfare program centered on work has to make sure that the poor have the skills that employers need. Ryan’s welfare-reform draft from 2014 has little to say on this subject — only that the current job training and retraining programs should be streamlined.

To his credit, Ryan has never said he holds all the answers. He'd like everyone to chime in with their own ideas. In the past, Marco Rubio has talked about his own anti-poverty plan, which contains the interesting proposal to extend wage subsidies to more working Americans. This would build on (or revamp, depending on who you ask) the Earned Income Tax Credit, which has been one of the more successful welfare policies to come out of the '90s.

You won't Rubio talk much about his poverty-reduction plan these days though. The conversation has shifted, in no small part thanks to the dramas of Donald Trump.

And yet, here is fresh evidence that Republicans — and Americans as a whole — yearn for a voice on poverty. It's a missed opportunity.