WASHINGTON — Sen. Marco Rubio on Wednesday proposed a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s anti-poverty programs, arguing that for decades Washington has been too fixed on dealing with poverty’s consequences rather than its causes.
The Florida Republican suggested giving federal funds to states so they could devise ways to combat poverty.
“Five decades and trillions of dollars after President Johnson waged his ‘War on Poverty,’ the results of this big-government approach are in,” Rubio said on the 50th anniversary of the day Johnson first declared his goal for government help to the poor.
“Our anti-poverty programs should be replaced with a revenue-neutral flex fund,” Rubio argued. “We would streamline most of our existing federal anti-poverty funding into one single agency.”
Each year, the flex funds would go to states “so they can design and fund creative initiatives that address the factors behind inequality of opportunity.”
Rubio offered no list as to what programs would be involved in his initiative, other than perhaps the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps.
The senator also proposed replacing the earned income tax credit, a popular break for lower- and moderate-income workers, with a “federal wage enhancement for qualifying low-wage jobs.”
Someone with a lower-paying job would also get a federal benefit. The amount, Rubio said, “will depend on a range of factors.”
Rubio’s address to a group of experts and reporters at the Capitol’s Lyndon B. Johnson Room was a marquee event during a day of reflection and speeches over how to tackle poverty.
The poverty rate was 15 percent in 2012, down slightly from the mid-1960s. Critics charge the change has been negligible and expensive. Supporters say the rate could be higher if not for the expansion of safety net programs.
Partisan divisions over how to proceed were clear Wednesday.
“We created new avenues of opportunity through jobs and education, expanded access to health care for seniors, the poor, and Americans with disabilities, and helped working families make ends meet,” President Obama said in a statement.
At the Capitol, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., told the Senate that 50 years ago Johnson identified poverty as “a national problem. And that’s why he made it a national priority.”
“So I think we ought to rededicate ourselves today to that national priority,” said Murray, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee.
The nation is emerging from a deep recession, and unemployment in November was 7 percent, its lowest level in five years. The divide between rich and poor remains stark, triggering a flood of recent promises from the White House and congressional leaders to work to narrow the gap.