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As elections loom, Capitol Hill is latest front in war on poverty

  • McClatchy Washington Bureau
  • Published Tuesday, April 29, 2014, at 1:27 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, May 1, 2014, at 3:03 p.m.

— The war on poverty returns to Capitol Hill as lawmakers prepare to wage a battle this week that’s a likely preview of what’s to come on the campaign trail this election year and in 2016.

Fifty years after President Lyndon Johnson declared his intent to “not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it,” key congressional Republicans and prospective Republican presidential candidates are hammering away at some of his Great Society programs. They label them well-meaning failures that have done more to strain the federal budget than to slow the cycle of poverty.

House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is expected to continue the theme Wednesday when his committee convenes for an update on Johnson’s goal, a follow-up on a scathing report on Washington’s anti-poverty efforts that Ryan unveiled last month.

“For too long, we have measured compassion by how much we spend instead of how many people we get out of poverty,” Ryan said in a statement last month. “We need to take a hard look at what the federal government is doing and ask, ‘Is this working?’ ”

Democrats, meanwhile, are looking to increase the nation’s minimum wage as a key strategy for reducing poverty and helping to narrow the income gap between America’s rich and poor. As Ryan’s committee meets Wednesday, the Senate is expected to take a key test on a measure to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour.

“This raise only gets people out of poverty. That’s all it does,” Senate Majority Harry Reid, D-Nev., said last month.

Driving all this debate is some very crucial political calculus. Voters can expect to hear more of how each party would address income inequality as this year’s congressional elections and the 2016 presidential contest approach, political analysts and poverty experts say.

But for all the talk, people shouldn’t expect political action soon, they warn. Democrats are well aware that their efforts to raise the minimum wage will go nowhere in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

The House, meanwhile, passed a Ryan-written budget that includes cuts and big changes in entitlement programs, such as Medicare, knowing that it’s dead on arrival to the Democratic-held Senate.

“I think all this stuff is a prelude to 2016,” said Eugene Steuerle, a former top Treasury Department official who’s an expert on taxes and Social Security at the Urban Institute, a Washington research center. “I think right now you have a stalemate between the parties, with the Democrats trying to complete the (President Franklin D.) Roosevelt agenda with universal health care _ trying to protect the Affordable Care Act. Republicans are trying to protect gains of the past in trying to keep tax rates moderate.”

Johnson announced the war on poverty at his 1964 State of the Union speech. It became defined by a series of programs design to help the poor, among them food stamps, Medicare, Social Security and housing assistance.

Like Ryan, critics of the program think that much of the money spent over the last half century has been wasted. A recent study by several Columbia University economists argues otherwise, citing a revised method by the U.S. Census Bureau that was used to calculate the impact of federal poverty programs.

“Our estimates . . . show that historical trends in poverty have been more favorable _ and that government programs have played a larger role _ than (earlier) estimates suggest,” the report said. “Government programs today are cutting poverty nearly in half . . . while in 1967 they only cut poverty by about 1 percentage point.”

The national poverty rate stood at 15 percent in 2012, according to a the Census Bureau report last September, with 46.5 million people earning at or below the federal poverty line of $11,170 for an individual and $23,050 for a family of four.

The figures represented the second consecutive year that the number of people below the poverty line and the poverty rate showed no significant change. However, the rate was 12.5 percent in 2007, the year the economy began its descent.

Though they aren’t the issues topping most voters’ lists of concerns, both parties see potential benefits at the polls in raising the issues of poverty and income inequality.

“It’s a get-out-the-vote issue” for the Democratic base, said Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Republicans apparently think so, too. In addition to Ryan, Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas _ all potential presidential contenders _ have spoken at length about poverty or recently toured poverty-stricken areas to tout their approach to the problem.

“Raising the minimum wage may poll well, but having a job that pays $10 an hour is not the American dream,” Rubio said in January in a speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of Johnson’s pledge to attack poverty. “And our current government programs offer at best only a partial solution. They help people deal with poverty, but they do not help them escape it.”

Paul’s speaking tours in urban areas and other places viewed as traditionally non-Republican recently earned him a story in the National Journal headlined, “Rand Paul’s Compassionate Conservatism.” It likened his efforts to those of the late Rep. Jack Kemp, R-N.Y., a conservative supply-side economics devotee who maintained good relations with the African-American community.

Democrats hope not only to prod their own base but also that enough Republicans will be moved by the need to close the income gap that they’ll look at Democratic candidates.

A Pew Research Center survey in January found that Republicans are split over how, and even whether, to deal with issues of poverty and income inequality.

Democrats are more unified, as 90 percent thought government should do something about the issues. The challenge for Democrats is to make people care.

Pew’s survey found that 49 percent of all those polled listed “dealing with the problems of the poor and needy” as a top priority. That was down 8 percentage points from a year ago, and the latest figure was well behind strengthening the nation’s economy, mentioned by 80 percent, and improving the job situation, 74 percent. It ranked 11th, after reducing crime.

“People see in their own communities and families people losing jobs, not income inequality,” said Juliana Horowitz, Pew senior researcher.

Republicans are torn on how to proceed. The Pew poll found that while 4 of 10 conservative Republicans thought government should do a lot to reduce the rich-poor gap, 6 in 10 moderate or liberal Republicans felt that way.

“We will not grow our economy or put people back to work by expanding entitlements. We will never solve the problems of poverty and inequality through bigger government,” said Rep. Tom Rice, R-S.C.

Ryan learned the political difficulty of addressing poverty when he went on former Reagan-era Education Secretary Bill Bennett’s conservative talk radio show last month and questioned the work ethic of “inner city” men.

“We have this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work,” Ryan said on Bennett’s “Morning in America” radio show.

His remarks created a firestorm among African-Americans. Ryan backtracked somewhat, saying he’d spoken “inarticulately.” He’s expected to explain his comments further Wednesday when he meets with members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

“Congressman Ryan is a nice guy, and as such he has tried to frame the comments that he made about inner city folks as just sort of an inarticulate way of communicating,” said Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis., a member of the black caucus. “His take on talking about poverty is to say that we’ve spent millions or trillions on poverty programs and poverty won. We see that, essentially, as sort of playing with statistics or numbers.”

Email: wdouglas@mcclatchydc.com, dlightman@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @williamgdouglas, @lightmandavid

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