Marco Rubio's Laughable Speech on GOP Ideas to End Poverty

The Right Wing

Senator Marco Rubio's office hyped his speech Wednesday as an "Address on the 50th Anniversary of the 'War on Poverty'", a rather grand billing given its familiar proposals. Rubio has slipped in and out of a few different presidential wrappers since he appeared in the US Capitol. He used to be "The Republicans' Obama". His proposals suggest that now he is the Latino Rick Santorum.

In 2012, Santorum outlined the exact same three-point anti-poverty plan: promote marriage, eliminate federal poverty programs in favor of block grants to states, and "something something America hope-dream-optimism something".

Of these three ideas, I'm probably most sympathetic to the first: sociological studies do show an enduring link between intact families and upward mobility. I'm not sure what the government's role in promoting marriage should be, though I guess it might include allowing any two people who love each other to commit to it. Both Rubio and Santorum stop short of endorsing that level of promotion. There's also a problem of causation.

Rubio calls marriage "the greatest tool" we have to lift families out of poverty. In doing so, he reiterates the thinking of a generation of politicians who've turned what they think is a lever into a hammer. The welfare reform of the 1990s, wistfully recalled by Rubio more than once in his address yesterday, sought to use welfare to incentivize marriage; just this week a study by The Ohio State University reported that single mothers who marry young and later divorce are worse off, economically, than single mothers who never marry. Researchers speculated that's because the "pool of potential partners" available to young women in poverty "does not include many men with good prospects", and suggested that programs encouraging women to delay childbirth and prevent unwanted pregnancies would be a better use of government resources.

Rubio spent a fair amount of time lauding the ability of local governments to figure out the most effective solutions to poverty, but one place he and his Republican colleagues are dead-set against allowing state and local lawmakers free rein is when it comes to spending government money to delay childbirth and prevent unwanted pregnancies.

It's the "shift all the money to the states" part of Rubio's speech that will probably get the most attention, even if it's not quite the bombshell he'd like you to believe. Rubio hawked the idea with an entirely unselfconscious reference to how that approach "worked" in the 90s – it was that structural shift that "ended welfare as we know it". There is nothing inherently wrong with federal block grants. Perhaps Rubio's proposal (he says he's working on actual legislation) will reveal innovations that are impossible at the federal level. That structural shift doesn't bother me so much as Rubio's contention that it "worked".

It "worked" only in the sense that it got Clinton re-elected and saddled Democrats with the idea that being "tough on entitlements" was a hallmark of moderation. In doing so, it set the stage to make today's GOP proposals seem more palatable, though they come limned in subtle condemnations of the underserving poor. So, yes, I guess by Rubio's logic, welfare reform can be said to have worked. By the judgment of millions of poor families, not so much.

Since the federal program "Aid to Families with Dependent Children" became the block-granted "Temporary Assistance to Needy Families" (Tanf) in 1996, extreme poverty in the US has gotten worse: it rose more than 13% between 1996 and 2009, from 2.7 million to 3 million people. The Tanf "caseload" has gotten a lot lighter (by 60%, in fact), but not because there are fewer families living in poverty; it's because families that live in poverty either cycle out of Tanf (benefits are capped at five years) or aren't eligible for it, often due to "sanctions" for not adhering to program requirements. Those families legislated out of Tanf are often the most vulnerable: those with undiagnosed or untreated disabilities, physical or mental, those enduring domestic abuse or struggling with a learning disability.

Sold under the guise of giving states freedom to tailor welfare programs – as Rubio proposes – Tanf actually attached all kinds of strings to welfare, restrictions that stemmed from moral judgments more than an understanding of poverty. What's more, the supposed freedom from oversight the law granted states quickly became neglect. Spending on Tanf benefits have not kept up with inflation. To put that another way, 99% of today's Tanf recipients have purchasing power below 1996 levels. In every state, Tanf pay-outs would put a family of three with no other income below 50% of the federal poverty line.

Rubio's third policy proposal – the "America! Heck yeah!" plank – is difficult to argue. As a nation, we do have remarkable reserves of endurance and will. We are a nation of incredible optimism, matched by amazing personal generosity. If we're lucky, those traits wind up serving the country as a whole. If we're not lucky, people expend those reserves just trying to get by. Right now, there are far too many people who aren't that lucky. Rubio's policies would extend that pool.

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