Marco Rubio’s “Anti-Poverty” Agenda Would Create Two Americas

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Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks about the “American dream” on the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s first State of the Union address in 1964, where LBJ committed the government to a war on poverty. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

On Tuesday, the 50th anniversary of the launch of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) gave a widely anticipated speech laying out his vision for breaking poverty’s grip on nearly 50 million Americans.

He started off strong. Rubio spoke of growing up in a poor family. He noted the fact that, “from 1980 to 2005, over 80% of the total increase in income went to the top 1% of American earners,” and pointed out that other countries’ economies produce more upward mobility than ours does today. He acknowledged that “our modern day economy has wiped out many of the low-skill jobs that once provided millions with a middle class living.” Echoing a recent speech by Barack Obama, he said “the erosion of equal opportunity is among the greatest threats to our exceptionalism as a nation.”

Yet it also featured a generous helping of conservative boilerplate about the wonders of the free enterprise system, the failures of big government and the supposed futility of raising the minimum wage.  Confusing causation with correlation, Rubio made the common claim that the decline of traditional marriage has led to a significant increase in economic insecurity.

His prescriptions also offered some shopworn rhetoric, calling for less regulation, lower taxes and lamenting “the uncertainty created by a dangerous and growing national debt.”

But he offered two proposals that will likely define the Rubio anti-poverty agenda in the years leading up to 2016, when he is expected to seek the Republican presidential nomination.

First, Rubio would replace the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) – which supplements the incomes of the working poor, especially those who have kids — with a “federal wage enhancement.” Rubio said his enhancement would differ from the EITC in that single people would be eligible for the same kind of subsidies families with children enjoy today, and it would be added to workers’ paychecks instead of being paid out in a lump sum at tax time.

It’s difficult to evaluate how this idea might work in the real world absent significantly more detail. But it’s worth noting that the EITC is one of the most successful – and largest — social welfare programs we have: Census Bureau data show that in 2010 it lifted more than five million Americans out of poverty.  And the EITC is structured in such a way that it disproportionately helps the very poor. If Rubio’s alternative isn’t, it could take dollars from the very poor and give it to those who earn a bit more.

Rubio’s other “big idea” would turn the entire social safety net over to the states, replacing a wide array of federal social welfare programs with “flexible” block grants. “Innovations are difficult to pursue because Washington controls the money,” he said. “But I know from my time in the Florida legislature that if states were given the flexibility, they would design and pursue innovative and effective ways to help those trapped in poverty.”

There are two serious problems with this idea. First, block grants increase with inflation, regardless of what’s happening in the larger economy. In the current system, social welfare spending increases during recessions, as more people become eligible for unemployment benefits, food stamps and the like. The “counter-cyclical” nature of these programs not only provides a vital lifeline to the neediest when they need it most, it’s also an important source of stimulus. When the economy takes a dive, these programs ramp up automatically, without the need for political battles.

Second, block grants would deepen the already significant divide between the red and blue states. When it comes to spending on health care, education and anti-poverty programs states have widely divergent priorities. These differences are ameliorated to a degree by the federal government’s involvement in our social welfare programs, assuring that every American has access to some minimal level of social services even if their states are run by the most conservative politicians.

Turning over the entire welfare state to local governments would risk making the cliché about “two Americas” a stark reality – people living in blue and red states would experience entirely different forms of government.

It’s also a solution in search of a problem. While Rubio lamented the lack of flexibility in these programs, the reality is that with very few exceptions, our social safety net programs are cooperative efforts between the states and Washington, and states have wide leeway in setting eligibility requirements, benefit levels and other aspects of their administration. What’s more, to address unique local needs, there are Community Development block grants, which have few strings attached and can be used for all sorts of programs.

Today, Marco Rubio unveiled his ideas as some new, outside-the-box thinking about how to address poverty. They are anything but. For one, the GOP budget authored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) would also convert major chunks of our social welfare system to block grants.

And way back in 1975, during the Republican primaries, Ronald Reagan called for the “systematic transfer of authority and resources to the states — a program of creative federalism for America’s third century.”

Joshua Holland is a senior digital producer for He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter or drop him an email at hollandj [at] moyersmedia [dot] com.
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  • Angel Rivera

    While I am all for capitalism and the market taking care of itself, I am not blind to the fact that every time that government deregulates, the deregulated businesses make a mess because their services are cut to maximize profit. The businesses are not there to provide a service, they are there to make profit, costumers come second. without oversight, they are reckless. Do you really think that the states will spend the block grants for who are meant to help without the federal government keeping an eye on things?

  • ginico


  • Heather Bailey

    Positively amazing. He starts by admitting that he was poor and the system worked for him then he tells us that he wants to change the system because it doesn’t work. Do these people ever read the words they are going to say or listen to themselves? Republicans have made talking out of both sides of their ass into an art form. And Republican voters just blindly follow them and the Fox “News” propaganda machine. Is it that they can’t think for themselves, don’t want to think for themselves, or are just too damned lazy to think for themselves?

  • Ron Jackson

    Moving the safety net to state levels is a slow death plan to eliminate the safety net. The Koch brothers type branding of issues has seen difficulty working on a national level. They (the fundamentalists groups) failed to buy the White House outright, and may have accepted they can’t pull that off. So they are successfully moving into smaller state venues where a few million $$$ goes a lot further toward squashing and distort ideals. The next Rep candidate may wise up enough to pretend they identify and care about social inequalities, if they have learned just placating the Tea Party will not win the national vote. But make no mistake, their core agenda and economic philosophies are not going to evolve in any significant way.

  • Anonymous

    I’m mailing Mr. Rubio my copy of “The Other America” today.

  • Anonymous


  • Anonymous

    As if that will do any good. Most likely make him double down on his efforts.

  • Anonymous

    The stoooooopid, it burns, burns, burns.
    The Ring of Fire.

  • Anonymous

    Hilarious. Move alleged social welfare programs to the states and then animate 50 campaigns in every state to eliminate them and then issue hunting licenses declaring poor people as open season game who can be hunted from helicopters. Ingenious! No one will see it coming!

  • David Tucker

    And don’t forget the Community Services Block Grants (CSBG), which go to states and are then granted to locally-controlled Community Action Agencies which are much more nimble and creative in addressing local poverty issues!

  • Anonymous

    “…the erosion of equal opportunity is among the greatest threats to our exceptionalism as a nation”.

    Whose fault is the erosion of equal opportunity? I would bet that the practice of offshoring our jobs to the lowest bidder worldwide trying to circumvent our labor laws, our environmental protection laws, and our tax laws, while also trying to undercut our standard of living has a great deal to do with that, and yet every Republican Senator voted to filibuster four different Democrat bills between 2009 and 2010 that would have acted to rein-in free trade and to attempt to restore economic fairness to America too.

    As for the Republican belief in exceptionalism, it gets them in trouble, as that belief is very similar to racist beliefs as well as a concrete belief in other forms of discrimination and exclusivity that separate conservative America from liberal America.

    Why vote for a guy who up until now has been a fringe conservative when there are plenty of tried and true proven liberals that have long experience standing-up for the rights, hopes, dreams, and needs of all Americans, not just for some of us?

  • Denise Johnson

    Jon Stewart had insightful commentary on this subject. Government welfare for the wealthy is just fine but not for the poor. The rich are immune to becoming dependent on government assistance. If that is the case, they shouldn’t mind having tax cuts ended for corporations and the wealthy.

  • Anonymous

    Giving red states autonomy over dollars for the poor will result in nothing less than a Laurel-and-Hardy en masse bus-and-dump of the poor into neighbor states so they can spend the money elsewhere.

  • zoom314

    Some of them ‘hunters’ ought to be aware that some of the poor have had military training, if I had to live under that, I’d get a CA legal assault weapon, a cleaning kit and a gun case, 34 years ago I was not a bad shot, if it moved within 50 to 600 Meters, I only needed one ‘.223′ round to knock down a target, and I didn’t miss either, sure I know targets don’t shoot back, just sayin…