Marco Rubio Takes the Stage as the GOP's Latest Anti-Poverty Crusader

With a speech this afternoon, the Florida senator declared failure in the 'war on poverty' and outlined his own agenda for helping the poor.

This time, last year, Marco Rubio wanted to be the Republican who tackled immigration reform. That didn’t work out. And after taking a few months of heat from conservative activists, he’s backed away from the effort entirely. But he still has national ambitions, and he still needs a signature issue.

Enter poverty and income inequality.

Republicans are trying to rebut Democratic attacks and rebrand themselves as a compassionate party that’s sensitive to low-income Americans. And in that fight, Rubio seeks to lead the charge. To that end, in a speech marking the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” he argued against welfare and unemployment benefits as effective policies for helping the poor, and outlined his vision for conservative anti-poverty policy.

“What I am proposing today is the most fundamental change to how the federal government fights poverty and encourages income mobility since President Johnson first conceived of the War on Poverty 50 years ago,” he said. “I am proposing that we turn Washington’s anti-poverty programs–and the trillions spent on them–over to the states.”

Despite clear evidence that federal programs have dramatically lowered the poverty rate, Rubio believes the “war on poverty” was a failure. Like most members of his party, he sees broad federal programs as an obstacle to helping the poor.

Instead, he wants to convert existing spending into revenue neutral “flexible” block grants that would allow individual states to pursue their own solutions, as opposed to hewing to the federal government’s vision. On top of this, Rubio wants to replace the Earned Income Tax Credit with a direct wage subsidy, so that low-income workers will receive more income, and the unemployed will be more willing to take low paying 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,” says the Florida senator. In addition, he wants the government to do more to emphasize marriage, which he hails as key to enhancing opportunity.

The wage subsidy is similar enough to the minimum wage that it might raise conservative ire, but it’s a genuinely good idea, and would be even more effective—in my view—if it were used as a supplement to the EITC and not a replacement. Unlike most of the anti-poverty proposals that come out of the GOP, this could work, although it could also shift federal dollars from single parents with children—who are more likely to be poor—to their married counterparts, which could increase the overall rate of child poverty.

As for the “flexible spending” proposal? You don’t need a vivid imagination to see the problem with devolving anti-poverty spending to the states, you just need to look at Medicaid. In states where there is a broad commitment to helping the poor—places like New York and California—Medicaid is a generous program that provides a decent set of benefits for his cost. By contrast, in states like Texas and South Carolina—where that commitment is muted, if it exists at all—Medicaid is a far stingier program.

Without strict federal guidelines—which seem anathema to Rubio—you’ll see a similar dynamic with “flexible spending." Liberal states will have generous anti-poverty programs, conservative states will not. And that’s to say nothing of the potential for cuts and reductions during recessionary periods; part of the case for federal anti-poverty programs is that they can act as immediate stimulus during economic downturns. The federal government can borrow to pay for food stamps and welfare, individual states can’t. Barring some provision for additional funding during a recession, Rubio’s plan would leave the government bereft of a key tool in stabilizing the economy.

One last thing. There’s little chance that a wage subsidy program would make its way through Congress, to say nothing of his plan to devolve anti-poverty programs to the states. Which raises a key question: Is there anything Rubio could do, right now, that would improve the position of low-income Americans? The answer is yes: He could support an extension of emergency unemployment benefits, and voice his support for the Medicaid expansion in the Affordable Care Act. In Florida, for instance, the expansion would cover an additional 850,000 people, providing them with health insurance and raising their real incomes in the process.

But Rubio has already taken a stand against Medicaid expansion—on Sunday, he restated his commitment to repealing Obamacare—and voted against extending benefits for the long-term unemployed. Still, Rubio has offered more than most Republicans, who approach poverty with the same basket of policies as they do everything else: spending cuts, lower taxes, and fewer regulations.

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In other words, and at the risk of being guilty of the soft bigotry of low expectations, Rubio comes away from this speech looking a little better—and a little more serious—than he did before it.