On Conservatives and Poverty: Talking the Talk or Walking the Walk?

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This post first appeared at TalkPoverty.

U.S. Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin speaking at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.

Paul Ryan (Photo: Gage Skidmore/ flickr CC 2.0/Edited from original)

Prominent conservatives sure have been talking the talk about poverty and inequality these days.

Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) famously took a “poverty tour,” earning himself no shortage of praise as a supposed anti-poverty crusader. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) has waxed eloquent about what he calls “opportunity inequality.” And former Governor Jeb Bush devoted his first major policy speech as a presidential candidate to the so-called “opportunity gap.”

This sudden concern for struggling families has reached the highest levels of Congressional Republican leadership. In January, in a joint interview on 60 Minutes, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) worried aloud about the growing gap between rich and poor. Senator McConnell even characterized the economic recovery following the Great Recession as a “top of the income recovery,” expressing dismay that “middle- and lower-income Americans are about $3,000 a year worse off than they were when [President Obama] came to office.”

Conservatives’ about-face on inequality, wage stagnation, and how hard it is to get ahead is no doubt newsworthy — particularly following Mitt Romney’s fatally tone-deaf remarks about “the 47 percent.” (Romney himself even performed a dramatic U-turn on the subject earlier this year.) So it’s hardly surprising that it’s garnered a great deal of media coverage of late.

But in marveling at how conservatives seem to have found religion on poverty, inequality, and the plight of the working and middle class, we must not lose sight of the other half of the story — their policies.

It’s not like we don’t have plenty of evidence as to what they really stand for. In addition to their voting records (check out the Shriver Center’s poverty scorecard to see how Members of Congress voted last year on minimum wage, paid leave, and other key policies that support working families), we have their budgets — the clearest statement of their priorities for the country.

As my colleagues Melissa Boteach, Anna Chu, and I wrote earlier this month, if the House and Senate majorities were serious about expanding opportunity and tackling poverty and inequality, their budgets would include job-creating investments in research and infrastructure, as well as policies such as raising the minimum wage, paid family leave, and universal pre-K — not to mention protecting and strengthening key safety net programs such as nutrition assistance and Medicaid.

Yet while Rep. Ryan may spend a lot of time talking about poverty and opportunity, year after year as Chair of the House Budget Committee, his budgets got two-thirds of their cuts from vital programs that help keep struggling families afloat—such as nutrition assistance, housing assistance, and Medicaid — all to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations.

And despite their newfound talking points on economic opportunity, the House and Senate majorities last week released Fiscal Year 2016 budgets that were just more of the same: deep cuts to nutrition assistance and Medicaid; repeal of the Affordable Care Act; cuts to job training, Pell Grants, Head Start, and more — all to once again protect tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations.

Remarkably, these policies are printed within the budget proposals alongside grand statements of concern for working and middle class families — e.g. “The economy is not working for many Americans. A lot of people are struggling to keep up or are being left behind altogether.” It makes for a glaring if inadvertent juxtaposition even within the budget documents themselves.

In another recent head-on collision between rhetoric and reality, Jeb Bush last week publicly stated his opposition to the federal minimum wage, barely a month after his speech on the “opportunity gap.” (You read that right: he didn’t just oppose raising the federal minimum wage, he said he opposes having one at all. Sen. Marco Rubio has made similar statements.)

With both parties talking about poverty and inequality these days — and a presidential campaign that is likely to focus on these issues just around the corner — it’s more important than ever to remind our political leaders that actions speak louder than words. Citizens and the media need to look past rhetoric — no matter how pretty it sounds — and focus on voting records, budgets, and policy positions.

That’s where we will find the truth.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.

Rebecca Vallas is the managing director for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress. Follow her on Twitter: @rebeccavallas.

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