Several possible 2016 Republican presidential candidates, including Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, are floating anti-poverty measures two years after Mitt Romney was caught on camera saying 47 percent of America would vote for Barack Obama because “they believe that government has a responsibility to care for them.”
The Republican Romney’s remark — told to donors in what he thought was a private session — helped paint him as a presidential candidate with little sympathy for lower-income Americans. But Portman and others seem eager to rewrite the script for the 2016 campaign.
In a speech last month in Cleveland, Portman said the “persistent problem of poverty is not going to go away unless we work together across party lines, across all lines.”
Then, in an echo to the 2004 presidential campaign theme of Democrat John Edwards, Portman said the scourge of poverty “is in many respects two Americas.”
Portman isn’t alone. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin — two other possible GOP contenders — also have hit on the poverty theme in recent weeks. Ryan was Romney’s vice presidential running mate in 2012.
Rubio unveiled a plan to make it easier for low-income parents to enroll their children in charter or private schools. He also would transfer to the states all federal dollars spent on poverty programs and scrap the earned-income tax credit in favor of a government-paid wage supplement.
Ryan wants to create what he calls “opportunity grants,” essentially block grants. The government would turn over federal poverty dollars in 11 different programs to the states with the promise that spending would not be cut.
The proposals — some of which have fierce opposition from Democrats — nonetheless mark a departure in strategy for a party that has downplayed talk about poverty since President Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. For the past 30 years, conservatives have championed cutting taxes and curbing federal spending, often acting out Reagan’s famous quip, “Some years ago, the federal government declared war on poverty and poverty won.”
But only once in the past six presidential elections has the Republican nominee won 50 percent or more of the vote, a sign that low-income Americans are tuning out the GOP.
“They realize they can’t build a majority party by attacking the 47 percent,” said James Manley, a former aide to Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. “They are smart enough to recognize Romney’s comments were radioactive, but in the end their proposals are still block-granting programs to the states and tax cuts to the wealthy.”
But Margaret Simms, director of the Urban Institute’s Low-Income Working Families Project, said both parties are “trying to position themselves around the populous.
“The prolonged recession has made people more aware of income issues,” she said.
Poverty numbers increasing
The federal government considers a family of four in poverty if it earns less than $23,850 a year; the income threshold for a single person is $11,670 annually.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of Americans living below the national poverty line increased from 12.5 in 2007 to 15 percent in 2012. About 46.5 million people in the United States fell below that threshold.
In Ohio, 1.82 million people are below the poverty line, an increase of 700,000 since 1999.
As troubling as the numbers are, they are well below the sky-high rates that launched President Lyndon B. Johnson’s so-called “war on poverty” in the 1960s.
With help from a huge infusion of federal dollars, the national poverty rate tumbled from 22.4 percent in 1959 to 11.2 percent in 1974, with Ohio’s rate dipping to an all-time low of 8.2 percent that year.
Many Democrats and those who have worked with the poor are skeptical of the Republican proposals being bandied about, which tend to shift more of the money and control to the states.
Columbus area Rep. Joyce Beatty, a Democrat who grew up in Dayton, doubts a “bottom to top” approach will be effective, saying communities in the throes of poverty “cannot do it alone.”
Adds Manley: “If you think the states aren’t going to use that money for programs other than the poor, you haven’t paid attention to the debate for the past 40 years.”
Portman, who has hinted he may run for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, has called his approach “constructive conservatism,” joking to a Cleveland audience that “compassionate conservative“ — the phrase GOP presidential nominee George W. Bush used in 2000 — was already taken.
Although Portman said “poverty has no greater enemy than a good job,” he acknowledged what few Republicans in the past three decades have admitted: “Even during good economic times,” he said, “people fall between the cracks.”
His anti-poverty measures include calling for more effective drug treatment programs to reduce drug addiction in the inner cities, better schools to encourage students to get at least a high school diploma, and more effective job-training programs.
“It doesn’t mean gutting government poverty programs, but it does mean targeting them more at the causes of the poverty and making them effective by getting them away from the top-down Washington approach and getting down into the communities where they are more effective,” Portman said.
Portman has had a mixed voting record on anti-poverty measures. In April, he supported a $9.7 billion compromise measure that would have extended long-term unemployment benefits to 1.3 million Americans who had exhausted their regular benefits.
But the Republican senator also vigorously opposed Obama’s call for an increase in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour, contending it would discourage companies from hiring younger workers.
The minimum wage issue continues to define the debate, with supporters contending Americans need more than just jobs to get out of poverty. They need jobs that pay a livable wage.
“People work every day and still live in poverty,” said Lisa Hamlet-Fugitt, the executive director of the Ohio Association of Food banks.
Jack Torry of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.