In South Carolina, Republicans Tackle Poverty
By Nick Peang-Meth
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson launched a “War on Poverty” to address the systemic poverty that plagued countless Americans. Today, over half a century after this massive program was introduced, it is evident that Johnson’s war has made few strides towards addressing the problem.
However, as the number and cost of the programs under the mantle of the “War on Poverty” grows, conservative leaders are beginning to tackle the problem in a fundamentally new way.
This past Saturday, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and Senator Tim Scott (R-S.C.) hosted a first-of-its-kind forum on poverty. This event, the Jack Kemp Forum, took place in Charleston, SC, and brought together leading conservative thinkers like Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute and six of the Republican presidential candidates for a series of moderated discussions on the issue of poverty.
Unlike many similar forums featuring presidential candidates during his election cycle, this event did not devolve into shallow political theater. Instead, Ryan and Scott probed their guests on the specifics of policy – asking Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) about the Earned Income Tax Credit, discussing charter schools with Fmr. Gov. Jeb Bush (R-Fla.) and talking welfare reform with Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio). Neurosurgeon Ben Carson (R-Md.), Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) and Fmr. Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.) also outlined their conservative approaches to poverty.
Historically, conservatives have struggled with the issue of poverty. Although we may care about the issue just as much as our liberal counterparts, time and time again, they have better and more boldly articulated a vision for fighting poverty while Republicans have remained silent.
Jack Kemp changed all that. Both as a Congressman, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and later as a vice presidential candidate, he developed a reputation for reaching out to poor communities in a way that no other conservative had done before. He shared a conservative vision for tackling poverty and argued that conservative economic policy was the solution.
To a large extent, Kemp was successful in making inroads with constituencies that historically trended towards Democrats. But when he and Fmr. Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) lost to Bill Clinton in the 1996 presidential election, Kemp faded from the national scene.
Today, Kemp’s ideas have reemerged in Republican politics, with the rise of Rep. Paul Ryan, a former Kemp staffer. After being on a losing presidential ticket of his own, the Wisconsin congressman has renewed his focus on poverty, in Tim Scott, he has found a perfect ally. Raised in poverty by a single mother, Scott has experienced poverty first hand. Now a United States senator, he has made the issue the centerpiece of his domestic policy agenda, pushing legislation that creates apprenticeship programs and expands school choice.
The issue of poverty is, more than ever, a critical issue. Last April when riots tore through Baltimore, the visuals surrounding this event revealed the level of discontent and anger in many of our poorest communities. After decades of liberal rule, poverty in many of our cities is just as bad as it was in 1964. Increasingly, it is becoming clear that President Johnson’s War on Poverty is a lost cause.
America needs a new vision. Conservatives must provide it.