Conservatives can't seem to help themselves. Even when they try to put on a face of compassion and creativity, they end up coming off at best as stale and clueless.
That is precisely what happened when Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., gave his speech on the War on Poverty Wednesday afternoon. His speech, posted on his Senate website, is essentially the same warmed-over combination of trickle-down economics, states-rights conservatism and subsidizing corporate profits in the guise of helping workers.
Rubio's big ideas are to turn anti-poverty programs over to the states so that they can "design and pursue innovative and effective ways to help those trapped in poverty." He would also replace the earned income tax credit – a successful anti-poverty tool that used to have strong Republican support – with a government subsidy for low-wage work.
He would not, unsurprisingly, support an increase in the minimum wage. "Really?" he said dismissively to President Obama's proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. Instead, he would make explicit what has been an implicit consequence of the low-wage, high-profit corporate economy: As companies like Wal-Mart and McDonald's employ millions of workers at wages too low to lift them out of poverty, taxpayers end up picking up the tab to make up the difference between what these workers earn and what they actually need to support themselves and their families.
Today, these low-wage workers are likely to be told by their employers to apply for food or housing aid from the government, while those employers lobby Congress to block a minimum wage increase. Rubio's response is what he calls "a federal wage enhancement."
"This would allow an unemployed individual to take a job that pays, say, $18,000 a year – which on its own is not enough to make ends meet – but then receive a federal enhancement to make the job a more enticing alternative to collecting unemployment insurance," he said.
It is a blatant invitation to employers to keep their wages artificially low, with the government picking up a share of their personnel costs. Corporate CEOs can then boast to Wall Street that they've kept their profits high by keeping their wages low, and enjoy the stock gains and million-dollar paychecks.
"Of course, the enhancement will be highly targeted to avoid fraud or abuse," he adds. Perhaps it would be shouldered with requirements like the drug-testing scheme Florida imposed on welfare recipients that wasted millions of dollars to unearth a small handful of drug users, and which was struck down by a federal judge as blatantly unconstitutional. It's unlikely that Rubio means that it would be highly targeted to prevent businesses from offloading personnel costs onto taxpayers – the most obvious fraud that would take place under this program.
Rubio's argument that states should be free to fight poverty on their own terms is a conservative perennial. It is the philosophy that gave us the "block grant," in which federal programs are largely dismantled and their funding is divvied up among the states. Conservative implementation usually insists that the block grant funding to the states is only a fraction of the funding of the original federal program, and in today's era of austerity governance, these block grants have been severely reduced or eliminated altogether.
But Rubio's devolution-to-the-states argument is especially pernicious in the context of red-state legislatures that have shunned the poor. Eight of the 10 states in the country that have the highest rates of poverty – South Carolina, Arizona, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi – are controlled by Republicans. They also stand out as states that have taken such steps as denying the expansion of Medicaid in their states under the Affordable Care Act, setting up barriers to access to welfare and food stamps, and opposing efforts to increase the wages of low-wage workers. These are states where "welfare reform" means reducing welfare rolls without actually reducing the need for welfare.
So while Rubio offers such noble language as "a defining national characteristic ... at the core of our nation’s birth" is "that everyone has a God-given right to live freely and pursue happiness," in reality the extent to which that right is enjoyed depends on where you live and to the extent to which Rubio's fellow anti-government, tea-party zealots have control.
Rubio has been getting faint praise for at least talking about the problem of poverty. But what Rubio offers are stale ideas from an ideology and a party that has proven itself more interested in punishing and marginalizing the poor than giving low-income people actual ladders out of poverty. One has to look no farther than Rubio's vote this week against even discussing extending emergency unemployment compensation for the long-term unemployed as evidence that Rubio is no "compassionate conservative."
Progressives do not believe that all of the answers to eradicating poverty lie in "big government." In fact, that is precisely why progressive movement energy is around increasing the minimum wage, so that today's workers can receive the same share of the rewards of their work that previous generations received. It is why we fight for fair trade deals and against tax incentives that encourage jobs and profits to be sent overseas. It is why we fight for federal investment in infrastructure and the green energy industries of the future. It is why we fight to ensure our banking industry is serving the needs of and accountable to Main Street consumers and businesses, and not just the casino dealers on Wall Street. And it is why we insist that as long as today's economy is broken for the overwhelming majority of Americans, we use the proven tools that have been in place for the past five decades to ensure that each American, whether in a red state or a blue state, can live in dignity and decency as they rebuild their lives and as we rebuild an economy that works for everyone.