Republican leaders, including six of the GOP presidential candidates, on Saturday will engage in one of their occasional displays of “compassionate conservatism,” in which they seek to convince voters that they actually do care about people struggling to climb out of poverty; they just don’t want to trap people in dependency the way they allege approaches favored by progressives have done.
The forum is called “Expanding Opportunity” and it’s being organized by the Jack Kemp Foundation, named after the former congressman and Reagan administration official who called himself a “bleeding-heart conservative” and was noted for going into low-income and African-American neighborhoods that other Republicans generally shunned.
As always, when you hear the rhetoric from this forum Saturday, it pays to watch what they do, not what they say.
Better yet, watch what people like Lauren Scott of Forest Park, Ga., have to do because of how right-wing attitudes toward poverty and the poor have increased suffering rather than expanded opportunity.
Scott was the single mother featured last month in The Washington Post whose life encapsulates the effects of conservative scorn for low-income people and the government programs that are supposed to help them. The story begins with her heading for a job interview in “frayed $6 shoes from Walmart” while “finding around her the obstacles that have shaped this region’s increasingly pervasive and isolating form of extreme poverty.”
In the metropolitan areas of the Deep South, government policies and rising real estate prices have pushed the poor out of urban centers and farther from jobs. Low-income people have, in turn, grown more reliant on public transit networks that are among the weakest of quality in the country. When they search for work, they step into a region where pay tends to be low and unemployment tends to be high. The share of residents in deep poverty — with incomes below $10,045 for a parent and two children — in these Deep South metro areas has grown by 24 percent over the past decade, according to Census Bureau data.
But even as their ranks have grown, the deeply impoverished in the Deep South have also increasingly found that they are on their own: They are less likely to receive the help of a spouse — or the government. Five of the six states with the highest proportion of single parents are in the Deep South. Meanwhile, policymakers have dismantled the cash assistance programs that used to provide critical support for the jobless with children. Those like Scott not only have less access to jobs, but also less of a safety net when they are unemployed.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, who will be a key speaker at the Kemp Forum, has argued that what states need is not more money but more flexibility in spending aid dollars. That’s a doubling-down of what already happened as a consequence of so-called welfare reform in 1996. That law allowed states broad discretion in how they spend and supplement the welfare program now known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.
As a result, as The Post pointed out, in the deep South “governors have gone the furthest in reducing the availability of welfare, making it all but disappear as an option for the poor by narrowing income requirements and erecting high job-hunting expectations” even as “jobs remain hard to find.”
As Alyssa Peterson and Melissa Boteach write on their Talk Poverty blog, “this newfound concern” Republican politicians are showing for the poor “is at odds with a conservative policy agenda that would exacerbate inequality, hardship, and wage stagnation.”
Ryan wants to fold into a block grant the remaining antipoverty programs that are still considered federal entitlements, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or “food stamps”) and rental assistance. “A lot of Ryan’s recommendations fall in the category of state flexibility, and that’s where you get into the situation highlighted in that [Post] article where suddenly a lot of states have used the flexibility under TANF to essentially take away the safety net,” said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a welfare policy expert at the Center for Law and Social Policy.
Currently, SNAP benefits remains one of the few antipoverty programs that grows as the need grows. That feature would disappear under Ryan’s block grant plan, and conservative states would be more free to impose more of the onerous, unrealistic and punitive restrictions that have become the norm for welfare cash assistance. “Anything that would undermine the entitlement [nature of programs like SNAP] would be a concern,” Lower-Basch said.
One of the tropes you are likely to hear Saturday is that the federal government has spent trillions of dollars on antipoverty programs, yet poverty is as bad today or worse than ever. That argument is a distraction from three basic facts.
First, as senior fellow Arloc Sherman writes for the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, “Because of a stronger safety net, poverty has fallen significantly since the War on Poverty was launched.” In fact, when the effects of aid programs are fully considered, “the poverty rate fell from 26 percent in 1967 to 16 percent in 2014,” he wrote, citing research from Columbia University.
Second, that reduction in poverty has taken place even though what we’re spending on antipoverty programs has declined significantly in real terms in recent years. For example, spending on the TANF block grant has actually declined 33 percent between 1997 and 2014 when inflation is taken into account. As a percentage of the overall economy, the federal government is spending less on the spectrum of domestic programs designed to help low-income people than it has in at least the past 40 years.
Third, conservative rhetoric about the “culture of dependency” and their alternative vision of “opportunity” distracts attention from our national failure to invest in the true engines of opportunity, particularly public education and infrastructure, and the refusal of conservative lawmakers to get serious about a real plan for creating jobs in America. Corporate tax cuts are not a job-creation strategy – that’s a strategy for enriching the rich. Neither is breaking unions and holding down the minimum wage. If “expanding opportunity” included a discussion of such issues as increasing our investment in a greener, more sustainable economy; making high-quality public education available in every community, from preschool through college; and raising wages and ending the flow of high-quality jobs overseas, it would be a conversation worth having.
For that conversation about opportunity, it would make more sense for people to devote their Saturday to two different forums, the “Real People Ready for Real Solutions” Issues Summit and the “Putting Families First Presidential Forum,” happening back to back in Des Moines, Iowa. These two forums will also talk about solutions to poverty, but the focus will be on “good jobs and a living wage, creating a clean energy economy, ending mass incarceration” and tearing down other obstacles to self-sufficiency.
The presidential forum will feature Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley. (Hillary Clinton was invited but has not indicated that she will attend.) Forum sponsors promise to ask both candidates pointed questions about how their policies would make a real difference to struggling families. (Read Roger Hickey’s post for more.)
Eric Mitchell, director of government relations for Bread for the World, sees an upside to the Kemp Forum taking place on Saturday. “What we do like is the opportunity to have a dialogue … to maybe create more conversations, more debates.” And indeed, there will be a sharp contrast that should drive the critical debate over how we create an economy that works for everyone. But don’t just pay attention to the words. There are real people suffering the real consequences of right-wing policies, and no soothing words about “compassionate conservatism” should be allowed to obscure that reality.