It’s no secret that the War on Poverty hasn’t been as successful as Americans had hoped it would be when President Lyndon Johnson first announced his federal anti-poverty effort, known as the Great Society. After five decades of fighting this war, and despite the consistent growth of myriad bureaucracies and programs intended to lift thousands out of destitution, we’ve seen next to no improvement in the condition of America’s poorest citizens. In a 1964 speech, Johnson said of his initiative, “We want to offer the forgotten fifth of our people opportunity and not doles . . . [to] help them lift themselves out of the ruts of poverty.” But despite the trillions of federal dollars spent from that day on, that fifth still seems forgotten. The poverty rate in America has remained static at over 14 percent, the labor-force participation rate is at its lowest point since the 1970s, and median household income has dropped far below pre-recession levels, even as, over the past decade, taxes have increased by $1.6 trillion.
Though these numbers are devastating, the constant influx of poverty statistics can become rote, and the problem often appears too vast and complex for either our government or our society to fix. That’s why a handful of young, Republican senators have teamed up to put a face to these numbers, to interact with the people living in poverty, to identify the barriers to opportunity and success, and to better develop local, conservative solutions.
Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina recruited his fellow senators to join his Senate Opportunity Coalition when he realized that a number of them were focused on similar anti-poverty efforts in their home states. “They all have passion for people in vulnerable situations,” Scott says to National Review. “Some, if not all, of them were already working on issues to deal with the most vulnerable.”
Each of these seven senators brings a unique perspective to solving poverty at the local level, shaped by their experience and the specific poverty issues that afflict their constituents. For Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska, what appeals to him most about this coalition is its goal of concretely identifying the problems affecting those who have lost faith in the system. “Numbers and statistics can be faceless,” he tells National Review. “What the members of the Opportunity Coalition and I are doing is putting a face to those numbers and proffering solutions that come directly from those experiencing economic stagnation.”
“This coalition gives all of us a greater understanding of and appreciation for the challenges that other areas of the country face, not just in our own backyard,” says Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado. “It’s a national perspective for local solutions.”
“We wanted to focus our attention with a specific group of senators from diverse backgrounds, diverse states who each bring something to the table on the issue of opportunity,” Scott added.
“The American people are looking for their leaders to show up and spend more time listening than just talking and issuing press releases,” says Senator Steve Daines of Montana. “For me, this job is about serving people, not about issuing press releases. . . . For those who are living in poverty, we need to go out on their turf, we need to go spend time, as they say in Indian country, ‘walking in their moccasins.’”
Rather than building a vast legislative agenda, these young senators plan to spend — and already have spent — a great deal of time traveling across their respective states, listening to their constituents, and learning more about the unique problems they face. With that information, the coalition will identify the barriers to climbing out of poverty and try to develop legislative solutions. It was very important to Scott that each senator understand the method he had in mind: begin not with a legislative agenda but rather by listening before acting, learning from individual communities by being accessible to constituents.
James Lankford, the junior senator from Oklahoma, intends to focus in particular on at-risk youth in his home state, a focus stemming from his 15 years as youth director at Falls Creek Youth Camp, the biggest youth camp in the U.S. Lankford said this job helped him develop relationships with kids and families of all backgrounds and ethnicities, from rural, urban, and suburban areas. “You see them for who they are, not for where they’re from, and that changes the way that you think about people,” he tells National Review. “If there are people trapped in poverty, it’s not just because of their neighborhood.”
For Daines, the crippling poverty on Montana’s many Indian reservations is a primary area of concern. “The unemployment in the Northern Cheyenne reservation is 56.5 percent, while on the Blackfeet reservation it’s 75 percent,” Daines says. “Twenty-nine percent of our high-school dropouts are American Indian, while American Indian students make up less than 10 percent of the state’s public-school population. That frames the challenges we see.”
“We have counties with some of the highest levels of poverty in the nation. There are very rural areas in Southern Colorado with decades’ worth of opportunity missing,” Cory Gardner says of his state. “We have incredible economic growth in Denver but yet there are still pockets of poverty elsewhere, and that’s what I hope to address within this coalition.”
Meanwhile, in Alaska, the lack of infrastructure has led to nearly unlivable conditions in some villages. “The federal government, often with the help of extreme environmental groups, has worked to stop nearly every road and/or infrastructure project in the state since the 1980s,” Sullivan says. “[In one village called Noatak] a gallon of heating fuel costs about $10. A sheet of plywood can cost $100. It costs about $12 for a gallon of milk. Many residents struggle just to stay warm and put food on the table.”
Elsewhere, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida is focusing on the horrible living conditions that plague his state’s public-housing projects, while Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa will address the fact that over 10 percent of Iowa’s households struggle to find food each day.
Though these issues are incredibly diverse and region-specific, the coalition members believe there is one key area where they intersect: They are all exacerbated by federal overregulation. In their travels and conversations, the senators have discovered specific instances in which regulation stifles local poverty solutions and they hope to cut back on that regulation.
“We all have solutions, and we continue to see the failure of some of these massive federal programs,” Daines adds. “Not that they’re all bad, but generally we’re not getting the results that we’d like. It’s time to look for some fresh new ideas to empower people.”
A number of senators are concerned that federal programs often require individuals to fail in some way before they can access government assistance. For instance, Lankford notes that welfare programs have the side effect of discouraging marriage, because they provide extra support for single mothers. If a woman gets married, thus providing a more stable home for her children, she loses the much-needed financial support she received as a single mother.
“According to the Brookings Institution, there’s a 97 percent chance that you’ll get out of poverty if you wait until you’re married to have children, if you graduate high school, and if you have a job of any type,” Lankford says. “These are not government solutions, but government can get in the way of these things, so it’s about finding where the barrier is for people to escape poverty if they choose to.”
Poverty is exacerbated by federal overregulation.
Gardner encountered a similar problem in Colorado with a federally funded reading-intervention program, which unintentionally encouraged failure. “A child would have to actually fail in reading before the teacher could use this program to provide additional aid, training, and tutoring to him. But the teacher can very easily identify ahead of time someone who is going to fail and needs those resources,” he says. “We have a system that often allows failure first, without providing the opportunity to avoid a break in the cycle before people hit rock bottom.”
In South Carolina, Scott has found that federal regulation disincentivizes the type of entrepreneurship that is necessary to bolster poor communities. “In 2015, we had more small businesses closing than opening,” he says. “Dodd-Frank is choking the financial sector, and it is contracting the number of small businesses in this country. About 60 percent of new jobs in this country are being created by employers that have fewer than 25 employees, which means small business is a lifeline. If access to capital is hard to come by, they will create fewer jobs, and we’re seeing that happen.”
For example, as a result of President Obama’s decision to increase the minimum wage on military bases, both McDonald’s and Subway franchises have closed on military bases in South Carolina. “It is not sustainable from a business standpoint to keep those businesses open, and now there are fewer jobs for people entering into the workforce,” Scott says.
In the more rural areas of Montana and Alaska, environmental regulations are crushing small communities that are desperately in need of economic assistance. In Montana, Indian tribes face million-dollar fines as the result of the Affordable Care Act, money that instead could contribute to the education, housing, and health-care needs of these communities. Daines has developed legislation to address this particular issue, but it’s not his only concern about the Indian reservations.
The Crow reservation has a plethora of coal, which comprises most of the tribe’s economy; if these coal-mining jobs are lost, unemployment will go from around 35 percent to over 80 percent. But new Environmental Protection Agency regulations, aimed at reducing coal emissions, are threatening to devastate the tribe’s economy. “They want to mine and export their own coal and they’re being stopped by the federal government,” Daines says. “They’re already living in poverty-like conditions and if they lose these jobs things will get much worse.”
Meanwhile, 2,500 miles away, similar environmental restrictions are preventing Noatak, Alaska, from functioning efficiently, and its residents have little access to necessary goods. “If they had a 22-mile road that led to a port currently used by a mine in the area, they could access lower-cost goods,” Sullivan explains. “However, about five miles of that road [would be] through federal land, and historically the federal government has not at all cooperated with any infrastructure or road project in Alaska. These are the kind of projects in Alaska, and throughout the country, that could truly benefit people and help lift them out of poverty.”
This new coalition of optimistic young senators believes those projects can take shape with Republican initiative — but only if legislators sincerely listen to their constituents and develop solutions using the conservative principles of limited government and free enterprise, coupled with compassion.
“Part of this for me is learning to see people for who God created them to be, and realizing that everyone has potential and they should be able to use it,” Lankford says. “I hope this brings benefit to people in poverty in my state. I would love to see us provide opportunity for people in all areas of the state, of all ethnicities, who face poverty.”
In a recent coalition meeting, Scott stressed that solutions must come from the heart. “You’re not listening to people who have a legislative agenda to solve a problem,” he said. “You’re listening to people who have a heart, to present solutions to problems that have been systemic. . . . The solution is having people who love people go to where they are and have a conversation.”
“This coalition represents a fresh vision, fresh faces in the U.S. Senate,” says Daines, “and I’m struck more than anything else at the end of the day by the compassion, the hearts of these senators who are truly doing this for the right reasons.”
“We’re shattering this misperception that somehow Republicans do not connect our hearts and our heads. It’s just hogwash,” Scott adds. “We’re talking about folks who have a heart for people, and for us to close the gap, people have to know that there is opportunity available. And one of the ways for them to know that is to show up.”
— Alexandra DeSanctis is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.