Children across Florida have been returning to school. Sadly for many, the first school bell of the year could not ring soon enough. Across our state, approximately 1 million children — one out of every four — are living in poverty. For them and their families, the start of the school year is not just about education; it provides a sense of comfort, routine and even consistent meals in otherwise unpredictable lives.
Each of their stories is unique: Some were born into families trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty; others were fine until their families fell on hard times. Some are in inner cities; others live in the often-forgotten rural parts of Florida, while a growing number are living in our suburbs.
In their lives, I see my family’s earlier struggles to overcome poverty upon arriving in the United States in 1956. For many years, my mom and dad’s typical meals consisted of white rice with a fried egg on top, or macaroni with Spam. Despite Florida’s heat, they didn’t have air conditioning. They washed their clothes by hand and hung it outside to dry. If they needed more money to make ends meet, they worked more. They lacked health insurance, so when my mother seriously injured her hand, she put a bandage on it and went back to work, scarring her hand for life.
My parents didn’t just have themselves to worry about; they were also caring for a young child – my brother, who never saw a dentist until he joined the Army. Their early lives in America were hard, but because they chose to make this their home, their life in poverty was a temporary condition. Soon, doors of opportunity started to open for them — and for my brother — that would allow them to achieve a middle-class life and stake their claim to the American Dream.
My family’s story is not unique. Being able to rise high above the circumstances of one’s birth helps define America. It gives me confidence that, if we make the right policy decisions soon, all of Florida’s children — and the millions more across this country living in poverty — will be empowered to achieve their full potential. We are already an exceptional nation despite having so many people living in poverty, but it is our moral duty to lift everyone and make America even greater.
We must start by ending the one-size-fits-all, Washington-knows-best approach that has failed to eradicate poverty over the past five decades. Instead, states should start receiving a spending-neutral Flex Fund, which is a lump sum amount of federal aid they already receive through the various federally administered programs. States would use these Flex Funds to design and fund anti-poverty programs on a more localized level. We should also reform the Earned Income Tax Credit into a wage enhancement to supplement a worker’s income each month that incentivizes work over welfare.
My tax reform plan would also help ease the burden on impoverished families. In addition to creating more higher-paying jobs, it would increase the current child tax credit of $1,000 by $2,500, allowing working families to keep more of their hard earned money to more easily pay utility bills, afford day care for young children, or deal with other expenses.
Escaping poverty also requires change in the classroom. No child should be forced to attend a failing school that is both underfunded and unsafe, but that’s happening today, especially among low-income families. All families deserve the freedom to choose the best schools for their children. We need stronger charter school systems available as an option for families who do not wish to send their children to failing schools. Scholarship programs like Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program, need to be more readily available to low-income students, and we need to defend them against lawsuits from liberal interests protecting the failed status quo.
Higher education must also recognize both the desire of working parents to get ahead and the unique obstacles they face in doing so. Skills training, certifications and degree equivalents need to be more flexible and accessible for working parents. Online courses allow adults to study while attending to the needs of their children, but are often even more expensive than traditional college courses. With most of the content of these courses available freely on the Internet, free online classes should become an option for working parents with a recognition process that can certify skills gained so they may better their lives and find new opportunities. Parents who work overtime should also have the option of getting paid for that time or converting it into additional leave time they can use to tend to their kids’ needs, attend classes, or some other productive purpose.
It’s unacceptable that, on average, one out of every four school desks in Florida today is filled by a student in poverty. To make this an American century, we must empower all children and families to escape poverty and achieve a better life. Through common-sense reforms like these, we can keep the American Dream alive in the 21st century.
Marco Rubio represents Florida in the U.S. Senate and is seeking the Republican nomination for president.