The Corner

Rubio on Poverty and the Welfare State

This speech, which Senator Marco Rubio delivered today, is well worth your while. 

Rubio offers a great example of how conservatives should be thinking about poverty in America, and about the conceptual perversity and (resulting) practical inadequacy of our vast array of anti-poverty programs. And he helps us also to see how the Democrats’ misguided emphasis on inequality as the core of that problem opens up real opportunities for Republicans to lay out for the country their vision of the American dream, and their agenda for helping more Americans achieve it. 

Rubio also essentially endorses (and apparently plans to propose in legislative form) the two elements of the superb proposal Oren Cass first offered in NR in October. That proposal introduces a promising organizing principle for public anti-poverty efforts: A clear distinction between help for working people below the poverty line (which should consist of making that work pay more so that working people can become more independent) and help for people who cannot work (which should consist of the provision of goods and services to meet some key necessities). And it shows how this distinction can also translate into a more logical distinction between the state and federal roles in helping the poor.

For the working poor, Rubio would transform the Earned Income Tax Credit into a real wage subsidy, which would function as a kind of reverse payroll tax, so that people would get a portion of it with each paycheck rather than in an annual sum. This would also extend it to more people (notably poor single men, whose prospects are perhaps most grave of all now). This is, as Cass explains in that piece, far preferable to a higher minimum wage. For the non-working poor, it would give the states all the federal resources now devoted to that population (much of which already flows through state programs) but with a great deal more freedom to find ways to help their particular poor residents – combining a number of federal anti-poverty programs into a “flex fund” for the states. All of this would not increase spending, but could well increase the effectiveness of today’s anti-poverty efforts by simultaneously increasing the relative appeal of work over public assistance and enabling state experimentation with such assistance that might reveal some better ways to help the poor rise. 

We shouldn’t overestimate the potential of state experimentation. States are laboratories of corruption and waste as much as they are laboratories of innovation and creative policymaking. But the substantive argument for federalism or subsidiarity is particularly strong in the case of helping the poor.

Do have a look.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.

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