Trillions of federal dollars have been spent, to little effect. Let’s focus on jobs, education and opportunity.
On Saturday a majority of the Republican presidential field will meet to discuss fighting poverty at a forum in Columbia, S.C., hosted by the Jack Kemp Foundation. The two of us will serve as moderators.
The high level of candidate interest indicates that our party is not willing to concede this issue to the Democrats. We expect the candidates will have their differences, but that’s only because they have ideas, which is more than the other party is offering. What these Republicans share is a much-needed insight: The ticket out of poverty is a quality education and a good paycheck.
President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty in 1964. Since then politicians have won votes by creating new federal programs, without bothering to check whether they work—because in the political market the currency is promises, not results. The federal government now runs more than 80 different antipoverty programs at a cost of about $750 billion a year. Yet 46 million Americans are poor today, and the poverty rate has barely budged: from 19% in 1965 to 14.8% in 2014. If you were raised poor, you’re as likely to stay poor as you were 50 years ago.
The left says these programs prevent extreme deprivation, and that’s true. But the federal government is not only putting a floor under people’s feet; it is gluing their feet to it. Many programs are means-tested, so as you make more money you lose aid. People often use several programs at the same time, so the benefits drop-off is as subtle as a ski-jump.
Say you’re a single mother with one child. You’re making the minimum wage, and you’re on food stamps, Medicaid, housing assistance and the Earned Income Tax Credit. If you take a job that pays $3 more, you’ll keep only 10 cents of every extra dollar you make, after tax hikes and benefit cuts. In other words, taking a better-paying job is a high-risk, low-reward proposition.
This is a problem that demands a solution, but it is only one dynamic policy makers must confront. And we see Saturday’s forum as our party’s chance to stop carping from the cheap seats and to get into the driver’s seat. By offering real solutions, Republicans can define the proper role of the federal government in the 21st century and show the country what a true opportunity agenda looks like.
Here’s what we believe: By limiting itself, government can actually expand opportunity when it gets out of the way and paves the road to collaboration—whether it’s between students and teachers, job seekers and employers, or people in need and people who can help. It is through that free, personal exchange that people learn the skills they need to succeed.
And there’s no exchange more important than education. Everyone knows the difference a good teacher can make. That’s why one of the authors here, Sen. Scott, has introduced legislation that would give parents more control over their children’s education. It would redirect federal funding to the parents of students with disabilities, military families or low-income families in Washington, D.C., so they could use that money to send their children to the school of their choice—public, private or charter.
Perhaps the greatest education of all occurs on the job. That’s why many Republicans have called for strengthening the work requirement in antipoverty programs and supporting low-income workers by increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit. That first job is the first rung on the ladder of opportunity.
Both of us have seen firsthand the good work being done in our communities—from the Goodwill in Greenville, S.C., to Catholic Charities in Janesville, Wis., to the House of Help City of Hope in Washington, D.C. The federal government treats these groups as little more than social workers with street cred.
But they’re much more than that; they’re social entrepreneurs. Precisely because they have credibility, they can get through to people others can’t. The federal government should assist the people and communities leading these efforts, not elbow them out of the way. Along these lines, the other author here, House Speaker Ryan, has proposed giving states and communities flexibility to try different solutions.
We need to take the focus in Washington off intentions and put it on results. Along those lines, Speaker Ryan has introduced legislation with Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.) to create a commission on evidence-based policy. The federal government already collects a lot of data on its poverty-fighting efforts, but it doesn’t use it to evaluate progress. The commission would be charged with finding a way to make use of this data and report back to Congress.
Education, work, community, accountability: These conservative principles will help people learn the skills they need to earn higher pay. And as more people jump back into the workforce, the economy will grow for everyone. We look forward to hearing the GOP presidential candidates’ ideas for fighting poverty on Saturday, but one message is already clear: Democrats want to take care of the poor; Republicans want to empower them.
Mr. Ryan, a Republican, is a representative from Wisconsin and House speaker. Mr. Scott, a Republican, is a senator from South Carolina.