Why the GOP Cares About Poverty Now: Poor People Are Looking More White

The face of poverty doesn’t look the same anymore. And Republicans here in Washington seem to be taking note. They even seem to be caring. What, Paul Ryan, worry about the takers and not the makers? Maybe the war-on-the-war-on-poverty message has less to do with faulty data and midterm chances than something a lot simpler: the GOP’s favorite all-purpose boogeyman – the Welfare Queen – has been replaced with a poor population that looks a lot more, well, white.

According to a recent report from the Census Bureau, one in three Americans can be expected to fall below the poverty line for at least six months, and more than 50% of all Americans between the ages of 25 and 60 have experienced at least a year of poverty. What’s different, now, is that two-thirds of those who fall below the poverty line now self-identify as white.

The GOP has responded to the ongoing pledge from Barack Obama and the Democrats to solve what the president calls “the defining challenge of our time”: income inequality. And they’ve responded primarily by way of Ryan’s controversial poverty report, which focuses much of its attention on the sort of social science reports that liberal Democrats have relied on for years. The report tiredly bemoans the government’s waste of social assistance programs, while praising some, like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which Obama’s new budget proposes to expand.

That some leading Republicans would embrace the EITC isn’t surprising; like Obamacare, this was a conservative idea that enjoys occasional Republican support, even though it’s viewed with extreme caution as excessively redistributive and prone to extreme abuse. Plus, every few years the minimum-wage debate re-emerges, and like clockwork, when Democrats say raise it, Republicans say E-I-T-C. This year, Sen Marco Rubio has proposed a version of the program nearly identical to Obama’s, changing an annual credit to one received on a month-by-month basis. The EITC is appealing to Republicans because it’s a way to increase pay for low-income workers that doesn’t burden their employers, which is more or less their argument against the minimum wage.

The faint praise in the Ryan report for the EITC – and programs like it – seems to reflect the Right’s sudden heartswell for the poor. Conveniently, a lot of those feel-good vibes come from those facing uphill re-election battles, those who need white votes, those running for the White House in 2016 or some combination thereof. Kentucky Sen Rand Paul spoke to a crowd in Detroit, asking the city to introduce “economic freedom zones” in order to promote job growth. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has pushed vouchers and school choice to combat poverty. Republican Senator Susan Collins has proposed fixing benefits and assistance programs to job training for the long-term unemployed.

All of which sounds well and good. Except for, well, the very economists Ryan cites in his poverty report are outright contesting the solutions the GOP has drawn from their research. Paul Krugman calls Paul Ryan “demonstrably wrong” on poverty. In a series of interviews conducted by the Fiscal Times’ Rob Garver, researchers and economists cited in the Ryan report express anger at how Ryan “either misunderstood or misrepresented their research”. Ryan is “setting a trap”, say the liberal economists.

None of which is really all that surprising, but some of which is: politicians have long manipulated facts to their advantage, and there hasn’t, sadly, been a lot of political advantage to be had from Republicans helping the poor. But as the middle class has eroded, the maker-taker divide that conservatives have so exploited over the past 30 years, well, it’s eroded along with it. Lower-middle class whites who once viewed themselves as middle or upper-middle class are now struggling to find work and filing for government assistance, just like those mythical Welfare Queens they were brought up to disdain. And the GOP is beginning, finally and more than a little questionably, to see an upside.

Late last week I attended a daylong forum hosted by the Atlantic marking the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, which took the title “Reinventing the War on Poverty”. I usually don’t trust these sort of think tank-style events with their grandiose self-descriptions and old white men telling you how it is, but here it was, in every direction and from both sides: a debate between the mother of all false choices – a minimum wage increase and the EITC.

Like other Republicans have done in the past, Robert Doar, the former head of social services for New York City, voiced support for Obama’s expansion of the earned income-tax credit. A number of former Bush advisers, like Greg “People Are Unperterbed by Rich Movie Stars” Mankiw, very much support it. Unlike Republicans in office, Doar and Mankiw maintain the noted advantage of being able to voice support for Obama’s plan rather than create thinly veiled copies like Rubio has done, or poorly researched ones like Ryan, or some combination therein.

But mostly, it’s for the little guy. The little white guy.

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