On January 9, up to 1700 people packed the exhibit hall of the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center in South Carolina to hear what some of the 2016 candidates have to say about poverty–and how America can fight it. The forum, hosted by the Jack Kemp Foundation, Speaker Paul Ryan, and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), featured Dr. Ben Carson, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Gov. Chris Christie, Gov. John Kasich, and Sen. Marco Rubio; former Hewlett-Packard Carly Fiorina was unable to attend. So, is this a new day for the conservative movement? It was a question posited towards to the crowd by American Enterprise Institute’s president Arthur Brooks, who said the reason he’s conservative is because poverty is an issue he cares about the most. It’s also a moral one for him.
Brooks delivered remarks prior to the first panel, introducing Speaker Ryan, Sen. Scott, Gov. Christie, Dr. Carson, and Gov. Bush before they took their seats on stage, where he said that in 50 years, we’ve spent $20 trillion dollars in anti-poverty programs. The dividends: a 15 percent poverty rate in 1964–when the Johnson administration declared war on this social ill–to 14.7 percent today.
“That’s failure,” said Brooks. One that would get any CEO in the country fired. Moreover, it represents a staggering social cost of three generations of Americans lost to this awful cycle of lost hope and dependency. It represents the tripling of working-age men who have remained idle; they’re not working. And it’s a nine-fold increase in dependency on government programs.
Brooks aptly noted that when Johnson declared war on poverty, he talked about dignity not doles, moving people out of dependency on government, and lifting the beleaguered to better economic opportunities. He added that the government’s most visible way to combat poverty today is the Powerball lottery. Yet, while the cost of these programs is significant, and certainly an issue, Brooks mentions that the cost isn’t just financial. It’s human–and it’s moral.
It’s an ugly five-decades long history of how progressive, large government policies utterly failed to help the poor, and in doing so, has failed America.
The panelists took their seats; Sen. Scott asked the famed neurosurgeon about his past with poverty, where his mother raised him and his older brother in abject poverty. Carson’s mother, Sonya, worked two to three jobs, but never felt sorry for herself regarding their current economic situation. Dr. Carson mentioned how his mother felt education was key, prompting the neurosurgeon to establish reading scholarships later in his life that incentivize kids to earns points for the number of books they read. Of course, in the beginning, children do it for the prizes–you can trade points for prizes–but reading comprehension soon improves in their test scores.
The consensus of the three men was that education was key to getting yourself out of poverty. Jeb Bush was proud of the fact that in 1997, he opened the first set of charter schools in the Sunshine State. The Liberty Charter Schools had only 90 kids enrolled in kindergarten through third grade–but the culture of the institution came from the parents. Parents voluntarily signed contracts that mandated a set number of hours of parental participation.
Gov. Christie learned about poverty from his parents. His mother had to raise her siblings, while her single mother went to work. They were abjectly poor. Christie’s father was the first to go to college, using the G.I. bill to attend classes at night while working at a Breyer’s ice cream factory in Newark during the day. In both cases, family tragedies forced the grandparents, the grandmothers to be more specific, and the kids to work to keep a “roof over their heads.” Christie has also set up charter and renaissance schools in Camden, where he said that the high school graduation rates have increased. Christie added that states have the ability to analyze and utilize the tools to combat poverty more effectively; they see things in ways the federal government is unable to do. Sadly, the president doesn’t trust us to make these choices, not even other Democratic governors.
Regarding the barriers the federal government sets up that hurt the poor from rising out of their dire economic conditions, Dr. Carson said they start at the tail end of the Woodrow Wilson administration in 1920s, where it decided, according to Carson, to insert itself more in the public lives of Americans and culminated with Lyndon Baines Johnson’s war on poverty in 1964.
Carson illustrated how we now have more food stamp enrollees, more out-of-wedlock births, broken homes, and the sad fact that we wasted nearly $20 trillion in the process. But he also added that it’s not to say that government is evil, it just overstepped its boundaries. He quipped that some in Congress took the phrase “promote general welfare” too literally. Nevertheless, Carson reiterated that we are our brother’s keeper, and that part of combating poverty, besides education, is job creation. He expounded on the $2.1 trillion in corporate money that is overseas because the American corporate tax rate is too high. He would give companies a period of time to repatriate those funds, tax-free, in an effort to create more jobs. It could jump start the private sector and expand opportunities.
Gov. Bush also reminded the audience that poor people don’t want to be poor. It goes back to a glaring empathy gap that some on the right have for those who are struggling, which was the epitome of Romney’s ill-fated 47 percent remark. Bush warned how this was a path to the GOP being a permanent minority party.
For him, Bush wants to reorganize how the success of poverty programs are measured; it should be how many people are leaving those respective rolls, not how many have enrolled in them. Second, he wants to block grant the food stamp program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and housing assistance programs. That shifts the relationship between federal and state government towards working on outcome-based solutions.
There would be just one income eligibility requirement. Bush emphasized that work needs to be the single biggest requirement, no more waivers, which means we need to transform job training programs.
It's time to reward marriage, reward work, and (again) promote education so more young people are college and career ready (only a third are), and have a job-training program to customize skills to increases the chances of achieving their career goals. This all plays a part in forming strong communities. Americans know that the current status quo has failed, and that people who are stuck in poverty are robbed of their livelihood. They’re trapped–and it’s an atrocity.
An example of this trap was offered by Gov. Christie, who said that a common argument he hears in New Jersey is “If I took a job, I would be making less than all the benefits I collect.” As a result, Christie doubled the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which would help 500,000 low-income families in his state. In short, the EITC was meant to incentivize people to work and get off welfare, which it has been able to do in past years. It’s a refundable tax credit that you receive for working more, even if you don’t meet the threshold for income taxes. The key is that you need to work, not cut hours to avoid becoming ineligible for certain welfare programs. Speaker Ryan also chimed in to clarify that the EITC makes work an income-earning activity for the working poor–and that it’s not a welfare program. It’s a Milton Friedman proposal, but a major problem with it is fraud.
Christie also mentioned one huge barrier to combating poverty: drug addiction. You can’t get to work if you’re high, and it’s a large part of this debilitating cycle. These folks go to jail for drug offenses, don’t get treatment, get released, and then go back to their drug-using ways. The governor conceded that the war on drugs has failed–and that we need to pivot away from incarceration and enforcement. That’s why we need to move more towards treatment. The poor turns to drugs due to lost hope and desperation, which is why Christie signed a new law stating that if you’re arrested as a nonviolent first-time drug offender who hasn’t dealt narcotics, you get mandatory in-patient drug treatment and not a jail sentence.
Bush also hit on the criminal justice reform angle saying that 50 percent of people incarcerated in our federal jails are for using drugs, not dealing. It represents 20 percent of those incarcerated in Florida’s jail system. We need sentencing reform, but also the notion of giving these nonviolent drug offenders a second chance. If you have a criminal record, you can’t get a job. How can one be useful in becoming a building block of strong communities via marriage and hard work? As a result, Bush warned that men are becoming obsolete in lower income communities. Access to opportunity is very important, which is why companies and lawmakers are instituting employment reforms, such as if you’re on the road to recovery, your record is either sealed or expunged. Also, as Bush brought back the panel back to the EITC, he added that if you’re a single filer between the ages of 21 to 25, you’re not eligible to receive any benefits. We need to work on that, maybe doubling it for single filers as a whole. Jeb was also not one to forget his brother’s faith-based initiative during his presidency, which mobilized grassroots support to combat poverty. In fact, religious-centered services have probably done more to help the urban poor than any government program.
Another barrier mentioned towards the end of the panel was political. Education was a central theme for the first panel, but Christie mentioned how the teachers unions in Jersey were determined to stop the governor’s reform agenda. In 2013 elections, they gave $20 million to Democrats, which resulted in no GOP gains in the legislature. Christie won re-election in a landslide, but Democrats reminded him that his education agenda was dead. That was the condition for taking the unions’ money. In doing so, Christie said he’s now dealing with a bought and paid for legislature.
Yet, the Democratic-Republican divide is the least of the worries regarding fighting poverty. All three men agreed that it’s time for conservatives to enter alien territory. Get out, listen, and learn from these people living in lower income communities. Carson equated it to going into the lion’s den, citing his visit to the National Action Network’s conference, where everyone thought he was nuts for going, but said that when he talked about the effects of out-of-wedlock births, education, and the contributions of black people in America, he resonated with the crowd. We can’t be hesitant because we have better politics than the Democrats.
Bush agreed, saying that the ground is ripe for new ideas because the people know the current way of doing business has failed. Christie added that conservatives should leave their ten-point plans at home. Go into black churches and the Hispanic communities–listen, build legitimacy, and foster a moral authority, so when you pitch your idea, the dialogue is a two-way street. Also, it helps to understand the very people who are going to make your program work. They’re your peer review group. Take notes.