The hosts of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough, moderated the last panel of the Jack Kemp Foundation’s Forum on Expanding Opportunity, where both of them were both stunned and enlightened by the event concerning the emphasis on policy and empathy involved regarding helping the nation’s neediest citizens. In fact, before they took the stage, Mika told Joe, “I’m a Democrat; this Republican Party could win the White House going away.”
Speaker Paul Ryan, Center for Neighborhood Enterprise Bob Woodson, and American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks discussed what was learned over the course of the day.
Ryan said the Republican Party has to be more than an opposition party.
“But he fights” no longer cuts it; Americans want to see solutions. In fact, he added that it’s not really about party. It's about what we owe regarding finding alternatives and in order to do that, we need to listen; we need to experience, and learn from the folks in poverty, along with the ones who have risen from it. Find those people with success stories and back them to the hilt.
Woodson agreed. We need to go and listen to folks in these communities. Not many in the political class have had the gumption to venture into these unfamiliar waters. Also, we should put an emphasis on those poverty-stricken neighborhoods that haven’t resorted to drugs, where the dropout rate isn’t reaching epidemic proportions, and have raised families as best they could, given their economic conditions. On a social unit level, they’ve remained firm, despite being poor. This is where ideas for innovation on combating poverty are born because having stable families provides the staging ground to finish the job. These people have found ways to make lives stable. The next step for these communities relates to providing them with economic opportunities, which is so much easier than addressing societal deficits that often hinder relief efforts.
Brooks was pleased that the panels referred to the poor as people, with a sense of optimism for the future. How can we foster a reconstruction of the American dream, especially since conservatives have retreated from this field of public policy, much to the detriment of the nation? The result has been three more generations lost to poverty. When conservatives cede areas of policy entirely to the left, people’s lives are wasted. Speaker Ryan added that the current way of fighting poverty is paternalistic, condescending and arrogant. Playing off of Woodson’s remarks, the speaker noted that local communities are where we’ll find the answers. They’re the brain trust. He also emphasized that people, communities, churches, and civic groups are the ones who need to be on the frontlines of poverty, not the government. Government cans surely play a role in this fight, but it cannot be the principle actor in this fight.
When it comes to work, there are two types of people, according to Brooks. Those who view it as a blessing and those who think it's punishment. Both liberals and conservatives have channeled the latter to suit their own political agenda. The left is against work requirements for welfare programs because they think it punished the poor. The right wants those accountability measures because they really want to “sock it” to those on the welfare rolls. Work isn’t a source of punishment. We can’t treat the poor as the “other” in American society; we need to change this. Because the pursuit of happiness was written with the poor in mind; the “riff raff,” as Brooks mentioned, is us. We need policies and a philosophy that rewards and encourages good work. After all, work is part of the foundation, which includes faith, family, and community, that provides a path to happiness.
Yet, Woodson reminded us that work isn’t the panacea for poverty, especially for those who are poor due to moral failures, or what he called “category IV” poverty. What those people need is transformation, and just because they have personal flaws doesn’t mean they’re unredeemable. A job cannot do that alone. Resources to moral leaders in these low-income neighborhoods attach itself to those themes of redemption and personal transformation is a start in helping that subset of America’s poor. Woodson later clarified that he sees four classes of poverty. Class I are folks who are just poor; Class II are those who remain poor because working more means they lose benefits; Class III are people in poverty due to mental or physical disabilities; and Class IV are poor due to risky social behavior (i.e. drugs and prostitution). He also credited Speaker Ryan for visiting more crime-infested and poverty-stricken neighborhoods than most members of the Congressional Black Caucus, often without press. Woodson told Ryan it was time to show what you’re doing with these people–hence, the Comeback Series sponsored by Opportunity Lives that was played pervasively throughout the conference.
Speaker Ryan added that the reconstruction of the American dream, the promise of social mobility, and the success and innovative spirit that comes with it cannot be achieved if we continue to tolerate legions of Americans that fall through the cracks. It’s a futile and worthless effort if that’s the mindset–and we cannot be hesitant about this battle. Fighting deep, intractable poverty is where our energies should be focused, and when we do tackle it in a serious manner; it empowers those already on the ground–those local leaders who have been fighting it with more fervor than the federal government ever could.
Brooks also mentioned the political dividends of fighting poverty. Polls and data have shown that when conservatives capture the traits usually associated with liberals - empathy and compassion - it swings independent voters by at least ten points. It’s time to be warriors for the poor, but we have to do it together. He then went on to admit that he cast his first presidential vote in 1996, and voted for Dole because Jack Kemp, a former congressman from New York, was on the ticket.
Scarborough quipped, “can you believe what a wonk you are, you placed a percentage point on an emotion.”
Speaker Ryan had similar sentiments, noting that it was Jack Kemp that drew him into public service. For Ryan, he saw Kemp as someone who breathed life into the principles of freedom, liberty, self-determination, and our natural God-given rights; the man who wove those principles into Ronald Reagan’s economic agenda and gave us Reaganomics.
Speaker Ryan finished quickly as he had to leave in time to make his flight. Scarborough noted that this is the first weekend in many, many years that Ryan missed to be with his family so he could moderate how we can all fight poverty together. That’s how much Jack Kemp meant to him.
The second portion of the panel featured Sen. Tim Scott, who grew up poor in a single parent household, Monica Watts, a woman who despite her economic condition rose above poverty, and Jimmy Kemp, the president of the Kemp Foundation and son of the late Jack Kemp.
Sen. Scott said that the first action in this fight is for us to enter these neighborhoods that are desperate for hope.
“You have two ears and one mouth,” said Scott. Listen to what these people have to say.
The government has failed them, and we need to offer an alternative so they can escape this miserable cycle that has ensnared millions of Americans. The stories of people rising above poverty do not have the government being a central character. Government doesn’t represent a Deus ex machina in this debate.
Monica Watts surely didn’t have government help her escape poverty. Both of her parents were crack cocaine addicts, so in these circumstances, she said it’s the community that raises children in similar situations. Luckily, local leaders came into her community and steered her in the right direction, which is why she’s a mental health counselor working with an anti-gang nonprofit. She’s lost two brothers, and most of her family has either died or been arrested. Watts was enthused that every panel recognized that the current system is failing, and the various policies put forward to help people in need. Watts is still studying to earn another degree in her education.
You’re amazing,” Brzezinski said. “What an incredible story that she has.”
Jimmy Kemp mentioned that he would love to have a forum with Democrats and Republicans in a civil competition of ideas. He plans to do another forum, or at least he hopes to, with the Democrats in the near future. There are many other Monica Watts out there either waiting in the wings or moving on to more successful chapters in their lives. It’s time to have their backs, share their stories, and wipe out this social ill that liberals have so far failed at doing.