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Ponnuru: Fight poverty the conservative way

Published: Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

On the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida proposed a conservative version of it.

His speech follows a much-publicized tour of poverty-stricken areas by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and a proposal by Tennessee Sen. Rand Paul to revitalize depressed parts of the country. Suddenly, fighting poverty has become a theme of Republican rhetoric.

Republicans may be overestimating how much political benefit they can get from this new focus (the party’s real vulnerability is that people think it’s disconnected from the struggles of the middle class). But a reputation for indifference to poverty is unattractive, too – and a concern for the poor has a moral importance beyond any political value it may have.

In creating an anti-poverty agenda, Republicans have a positive legacy on which to build. The most successful such initiatives of recent decades – welfare reform and the earned income tax credit – reflected conservative thinking and had conservative support.

Rubio offered three interesting ideas in his speech. The first was to modify the earned income tax credit so that more of it goes to the single and childless poor, and so that beneficiaries get a little of its value in every paycheck rather than in one lump-sum payment.

The program already helps to keep people in the labor force, and Rubio’s change might make it easier for beneficiaries to spend the money prudently.

Rubio should build on this idea and push to strengthen work requirements in all anti-poverty programs. If you’re able-bodied and you don’t have small children, you ought to be working or looking for work in order to receive food stamps or public housing.

Rubio’s second idea is a “flex fund” that would hand over most federal anti-poverty money to the states to manage. Maybe this reform will work, but he should be wary of romanticizing the states. He presents the welfare reform of the 1990s as a triumph for the principle of state management when in fact the central feature of that law – the one that made it successful – was a work requirement imposed by Washington.

And misguided policies by state and local governments continue to make poverty worse. Licensure rules make it harder to start businesses and careers that can help poor people better their lot. Zoning rules and development restrictions make it harder to move to where the jobs are. A conservative anti-poverty agenda should combat those regulations, too.

Third, Rubio thinks we have to address the familial contributors to poverty. A child raised by married parents is much more likely to escape poverty than one raised by a single mother. The day before his speech, Rubio told me he understands that there isn’t much the government can do to change social mores, but that he also thinks it’s important to make the interaction between family structure and economic success better known.

“A majority of it is a cultural thing we need to address as a society,” he said. “But I think government can be a catalyst for that conversation.” He said that he’s considering legislation in a few other areas where the government might be able to help, such as reducing the marriage penalties that are built into many anti-poverty programs. (When one poor person marries another, the household often then makes too much to qualify for assistance.)

Much of what Rubio is proposing concerns structural poverty, the kind that persists even when the economy is good. Some poverty, however, reflects the business cycle -- and conservatives should take care not to make this cyclical poverty worse.

Two days before his speech, Rubio joined most of his Republican colleagues in voting against Janet Yellen’s confirmation as Federal Reserve chairman. They think money has been too easy. But if money had been tighter over the past few years, unemployment and poverty would have been even worse than they have been.

Republican senators including Rubio also recently voted against extending unemployment benefits. Many of them have worried aloud that the benefits are making it less urgent for beneficiaries to look for work. In some cases that is surely true. But when there are three unemployed workers for every job opening, a lack of drive on the part of the unemployed isn’t the labor market’s biggest problem. It’s a good thing, then, that over the weekend Rubio took the more reasonable position that he will back the benefit extension if it is paid for.

Getting macroeconomic policy right is an important way the federal government can fight poverty. On both monetary policy and unemployment insurance, Republicans have been acting on sincerely held views about what they think is best for the economy. But if there is one thing conservatives have emphasized over the years when it comes to antipoverty efforts, good intentions aren’t enough.

• Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor at the National Review. Reach him at rponnuru@bloomberg.net.

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