Marco Rubio: Get Washington out of the Anti-Poverty Business

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Jan. 8 2014 3:07 PM

Marco Rubio: Get Washington out of the Anti-Poverty Business

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And get the states in on the act.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Leading Republican voices in D.C. have spent this week talking up their ideas for reducing poverty, and the talk so far has been light on the whole "ideas" thing. The goal, as seen in this NYT lede, seemed to be "getting reporters to write about Republicans and anti-poverty programs" more than listing the programs.

But! Sen. Marco Rubio arrived in the Senate's "LBJ room" today, flanked by the flags of the United States and Florida, sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute. Come forth, o ideas:

I am developing legislation to replace the earned income tax credit with a federal wage enhancement for qualifying low-wage jobs. This would allow an unemployed individual to take a job that pays, say, $18,000 a year – which on its own is not enough to make ends meet – but then receive a federal enhancement to make the job a more enticing alternative to collecting unemployment insurance.
Unlike the earned income tax credit, my proposal would apply the same to singles as it would to married couples and families with children. It would also be a preferable means of distributing benefits since it would arrive in sync with a monthly paycheck rather than a year-end lump-sum credit. And it’s a better way of supporting low-income workers than simply raising the minimum wage.
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Honestly that's not much different than the argument Democrats make for raising the minimum wage; it's similar to the argument conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly make, that it would be better to encourage low-income work with higher wages than risk people ducking out and getting unemployment insurance (which, of course, doesn't last forever).*

Another idea? This one is, according to Rubio, "the most fundamental change to how the federal government fights poverty and encourages income mobility since President Johnson first conceived of the War on Poverty fifty years ago."

Our anti-poverty programs should be replaced with a revenue neutral Flex Fund. We would streamline most of our existing federal anti-poverty funding into one single agency. Then each year, these Flex Funds would be transferred to the states so they can design and fund creative initiatives that address the factors behind inequality of opportunity. 
This worked in the 1990s with welfare reform. In that case, Congress gave the states the ability to design their own programs, and in turn the states enacted policies that promoted work rather than dependence. In the years that followed, this led to a decline in poverty rates and welfare expenses.
However, despite this success, Washington continues to rule over the world of anti-poverty policy-making, with beltway bureaucrats picking and choosing rigid nationwide programs and forcing America’s elected state legislatures to watch from the sidelines.

The problem here might be the problem presented by a set speech: What standards would the states be expected to meet? Right now, as 25 states turn away Medicaid money offered by the Affordable Care Act, and a dozen of them hew to anti-indigency programs that commit them to spending money anyway. So this Rubio proposal is pretty embryonic. When asked which "anti-poverty" programs would be tossed into the fund—and if "anti-poverty" means the "trillions" spent since 1964, that means everything from Head Start to Medicare to Social Security disability—Rubio said it was being worked out.

*Correction, Jan. 8, 2014: This post originally misspelled Phyllis Schlafly's last name.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.