GOP leaders will attend a “summit on poverty” in South Carolina on Saturday. But no summit can fix what ails the GOP when it comes to concern for people struggling to make ends meet, or who no longer have any means whatsoever.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan originally planned the summit in September 2015, when he was chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, along with Senator Tim Scott (R-SC). “Poverty” is a recurring theme for Ryan: He talked about it during the 2012 presidential campaign, called for a “new battle plan” on poverty last summer and as speaker mentioned it four times in one of his first major speeches. Interestingly, however, poverty is not listed anywhere on his congressional website as a priority issue or legislative focus. Nor is it prominent anywhere on the speaker’s page. So for now, the rhetoric and the summit feel reminiscent of Ryan’s 2012 staged photo op, when as a vice presidential candidate he “ramrodded” his way into an empty soup kitchen to wash clean dishes for the cameras but stayed far away from the actual people being served.
Poverty also appears to be a popular new topic for GOP presidential candidates floundering about for an agenda that “sells.” As Rebecca Vallas wrote in the Huffington Post:
2015 seems to have been the year of Republicans finding religion on poverty and inequality, with GOP presidential candidates like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and former Governor Jeb Bush making major speeches on the subject, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and then-Speaker Boehner (R-OH) lamenting the ever-widening gap between rich and poor in a widely-noted joint interview on 60 Minutes.
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Normally, we’d write a critique of policies after they’d been presented at the summit, and that may be yet to come. But for a party that is persistently disdainful of the working class and those without jobs, it’s hard to take any of the rhetoric seriously, especially given that GOP legislators overwhelmingly voted for a bill to overturn the Affordable Care Act and defund Planned Parenthood before many of them boarded planes for South Carolina. If the bill had not been vetoed by President Obama, those two actions alone would unquestionably have added to the economic struggles of millions of Americans. Moreover, the GOP has a knack for wrapping the same old policies—already found to worsen poverty and inequality—in new rhetorical packages. Jeb Bush, for example, is apparently now campaigning on a “fix welfare” platform straight out of 1992. So I think a “prebuttal” of whatever policy announcements are planned for Saturday is fair.
Here are a few of the actions Republicans have taken in recent years that suggest their platform won’t fix poverty:
Reinforcing Poverty Wages: From 2013 to 2014, the inflation-adjusted wages of American workers have stagnated across the spectrum, including for those with advanced degrees, despite increased corporate profits and productivity. According to the Economic Policy Institute, this has largely been the pattern, with some temporary shifts, since 1979. EPI notes:
The poor performance of American workers’ wages in recent decades—particularly their failure to grow at anywhere near the pace of overall productivity—is the country’s central economic challenge. Raising wages is the key to addressing middle-class income stagnation, rising income inequality, and lagging economic mobility, and is essential to moving families out of poverty.
Increasing the minimum wage is one critical portion of a larger effort to dramatically reduce poverty, especially among women: The U.S. Department of Labor explains that “89 percent of those who would benefit from a federal minimum wage increase to $12 per hour are age 20 or older, and 56 percent are women.” Nonetheless, in 2014 and 2015, the GOP-controlled Congress twice voted against a federal minimum wage hike. And in recent debates, GOP presidential hopefuls have expressed resounding opposition to increasing the minimum wage.
Ignoring the Role of Medical Debt in Poverty and the Financial Crisis: Good health is critical to personal well-being and to economic productivity. It’s hard, and actually economically counterproductive, for both individuals and for businesses when sick employees come to work. Many people facing chronic or acute diseases also need time off to see a doctor or receive treatment. But health care is expensive, especially in the United States.
And despite enactment of the Affordable Care Act, a longer-term trend of higher and higher deductibles and co-pays has made paying for insurance and for medical care increasingly expensive, a reality that weighs disproportionately on low-income workers. Moreover, health-related expenses contribute to more than half of all personal bankruptcies in the United States. A poll by the New York Times and Kaiser Family Foundation found that health care costs from both chronic and catastrophic illness can leave people with “crushing debt.”
While an increasing number of people, including those with preexisting conditions, are now able to get health insurance under the ACA, the costs of insurance and rate of growth in co-pays has left many others struggling. As has always been the case with other large and sweeping laws, updates and changes need to be made to the ACA to fix gaps and unintended consequences so we can reach the ultimate goal of affordable health care for all. Despite the fact that health care is a critical aspect of poverty reduction and economic prosperity, the GOP both refuses to fix the ACA and has worked ceaselessly to overturn it, voting more than 54 times to repeal it without any backup plan.
Choice in Childbirth: Personal decisions about whether, when, and with whom to have a child have lifelong consequences and are among the most fundamental economic decisions. Having a child when you are in school, for example, may mean you have to postpone or entirely forego your education. Low-wage jobs are precarious as it is; having a child may mean losing work due to lack of options for affordable child care. A study by the Economic Policy Institute found that the price of child care exceeded the cost of rent in 500 out of 618 municipalities in the United States underscoring just how difficult it would be for a low-income worker to sustain a family and have the supported needed to actually go to work.
Feeding, housing, educating, and providing health care and other necessities for a child is not only very expensive, it also entails a lifelong emotional and physical commitment. It’s a profound personal choice. Worldwide, studies show that access to both contraception and abortion are positively correlated with higher incomes and better personal outcomes. Ironically, while Jeb Bush and other GOP candidates recommend “waiting until you are ready” to have children as one of their recommendations for addressing poverty, they have at the same time been gutting funds for family planning and placing an increasing number of restrictions on access to abortion. If they really believed in addressing poverty, Republicans would pledge to ensure all people have access to both contraception and abortion.
Raising a Family: As noted above, kids are expensive. The average cost of raising a child to age 18 in urban areas of the United States is now roughly $245,000. For this and other reasons, two-income households are the norm, not the exception—a result, as columnist E.J. Dionne has noted, of “an economic struggle highlighting yet again the social costs arising from decades of stagnating or declining wages and growing income inequality.”
All families need and deserve basic choices, including the choice to be home with a new or sick child, or when caring for an ailing family member. And all children, including those who live in low-income households, deserve to have enough food, heat, and a safe place to sleep. Ensuring paid family leave is a critical aspect of broader efforts to combat poverty because so many people at the lower end of the economic spectrum, and especially women, lose jobs for lack of family leave. The GOP, however, lauds family values but consistently votes against actual families. For example, though a majority of U.S. voters support legislation guaranteeing paid family leave, the GOP has consistently voted against it. And today’s crop of GOP presidential contenders all oppose legislation to ensure paid family leave.
Education and Student Debt: As a social good, education is critical. While individual opportunities vary from one field to another and one city or state to another, on the whole, education is vital for economic success. High rates of student debt and high rates of interest paid on those debts have, however, kept many from paying off their student loans or getting an education in a different field of expertise, therefore limiting their ability to advance economically. Still, the GOP has several times voted against bills, including those introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), that would have allowed students to refinance their debts from rates of 6 to over 10 percent interest to under 4 percent interest. While they’ve rejected these plans, congressional Republicans have not presented an effective plan to lower the burden of student debt.
So as Republican leaders convene in South Carolina, remember that the GOP has consistently made clear, through its legislative and policy choices (and I’ve only noted a few) and through its rhetoric, that it has little actual concern for people living in poverty and those who are most economically vulnerable. If you follow the axiom, “It’s not what they say, it’s what they do,” the GOP has done a whole helluva lot to undermine the economic prospects of those who are not male, not white, and not wealthy. Republican congressional leaders and presidential candidates as a whole not only don’t seem to care much about poverty, they don’t seem to understand what factors push people into poverty and keep them there. And they certainly don’t appear to understand what it would really mean to address poverty, yet are eager to exacerbate many of the problems that contribute to it in the first place.