With the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” as a backdrop, Sen. Marco Rubio on Wednesday will join a growing chorus of Republicans looking to put a conservative brand on help for the poor with his own call for a major overhaul of the nation’s anti-poverty programs.
“The biggest problem we face is not the difference in income between the richest and the poorest Americans, the biggest problem is that too many of those making low incomes are not moving up to better and higher-paying jobs,” Rubio is expected to say in a Capitol Hill speech, according to an advance text.
“America is still the land of opportunity for most, but not for all,” the Florida Republican plans to say. “If we are to remain an exceptional nation, we must close the gap in opportunity equality.”
Rubio, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, is one of several high-profile Republicans who are pushing their party to re-engage in the debate over income inequality, an issue largely ceded to Democrats over the years, as it’s shaping into a populist issue for the 2014 congressional elections.
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With unemployment at 7 percent, millions of voting-age Americans scouring for jobs and wages largely stagnant for those who are employed, both parties are eager to show that they’re siding with Americans who are struggling economically.
To accomplish this, some Republicans have traveled to unfamiliar territory. House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., visited a Philadelphia public school in October to tout school vouchers as a way to remedy income inequality.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., another potential presidential contender, went to heavily Democratic Detroit last month to pitch his solution to income inequality: “Economic Freedom Zones” that would lower income and corporate tax rates to a flat 5 percent in areas with unemployment rates greater than the national average.
Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the chairman of the House Budget Committee and Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012, is expected to discuss poverty in an interview Thursday with NBC’s Brian Williams.
Rubio aides wouldn’t provide specifics Tuesday on how he wants to change the government’s approach to poverty or which programs he’d revamp, saying the senator would provide more details Wednesday.
However, an aide said Rubio would propose giving the states more power to administer anti-poverty programs, similar to the way the Bill Clinton-era welfare overhaul shifted responsibilities to states through block grant programs.
Not to be outdone, Democrats are making an income-inequality push of their own. Tuesday’s 60-27 procedural vote on a bill that would restore unemployment benefits to 1.3 million people was an opening salvo. Democrats from newly minted New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to President Barack Obama have set their sights on raising the minimum wage as a way to even out income disparities.
“Income inequality is a hot topic because it doesn’t mean the same thing to everybody, so it can be anything you want it to be,” said Stan Collender, a veteran budget analyst. “It’s easy to talk about. It’s not an easy issue to solve.”
That was obvious during Tuesday’s debate over unemployment insurance as Democrats and Republicans retreated to their standard talking points.
“The billionaires are doing fine,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. “But if we lose the middle class and we’re not there with a safety net when they fall, we’ll lose everything.”
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Republican whip, said Republicans were all for bridging the income gap, but only through economic growth:
“That’s the debate we should be having in which this side of the aisle embraces, not how can we pay more government benefits to people who can’t find work or artificially fix the price of wages.”