WASHINGTON — Likely Republican presidential hopeful and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, speaking in the Lyndon B. Johnson room in the Senate, on the 50th anniversary of LBJ’s War on Poverty, urged a break with LBJ and proposed a conservative’s alternative way of ending poverty: turning over control of the federal poverty programs to the states.
“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 fifty years ago,” Rubio said in his speech. “I am proposing that we turn Washington’s anti-poverty programs – and the trillions spent on them – over to the states.”
The federal government, he said, is ill-equipped to run such programs and deal with the wide array of differing conditions and needs among the states.
“Washington is too bureaucratic and resistant to change,” he said. “And its one-size-fits-all approach to policy is not conducive to solving a problem as diverse as this one.”
Rubio proposed combining the funding for all of the anti-poverty programs into a revenue neutral flex fund, which would give money to the states, who could choose how to use it.
“If states were given the flexibility, they would design and pursue innovative and effective ways to help those trapped in poverty,” he said.
The focus of such programs also need to be different, he continued. Efforts so far have been focused on what Rubio sees as the wrong problem: income inequality. Instead, he contended, they should be focused on closing the gap in opportunity.
“America is still the land of opportunity for most, but it is not a land of opportunity for all. If we are to remain an exceptional nation, we must close this gap in opportunity.”
The role Washington should play, he said, is to “pursue reforms that encourage and reward work.” To that end, Rubio said he would put forward a bill “to replace the earned income tax credit with a federal wage enhancement for qualifying low-wage jobs,” the goal of which would be to incentivize someone to take a job, even if it was a low-paying job that did not provide a sufficient living income, knowing that they would get the wage enhancement instead of staying on unemployment insurance.
Rubio also touted the importance of marriage as a social factor that can help elevate people out of poverty.
As he has in most of his speeches over the past year, Rubio tied back the topic of the speech, combatting poverty, to his own personal story, growing up poor as the son of immigrant parents who achieved the American Dream and worked their way up to the middle class, leaving their children better off.
“I am but a generation removed from poverty and despair,” he said. “Where would I be today if there had never been an America? What kind of lives or future would my children have if this was not a land of opportunity? What if my father had been stuck working as a bar boy his whole life instead of making it to head bartender? What kind of life would I have right now? In all likelihood, I too would be among those on the outside looking in, forever frustrated that my parents had no power or privilege and that I was therefore unable to achieve my full potential.”
“For me,” Rubio said, “this is personal.”
Rubio is not the only Republican presidential hopeful to take up war on poverty. Former Republican vice presidential nominee and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan has been focused on the issue since shortly after the 2012 election, when he called for a more “compassionate” Republican Party. On Thursday, Ryan is doing a live interview on poverty at D.C.’s Newseum with NBC’s Brian Williams.