Senator Rubio’s Poverty Speech Muddled
Religion & Liberty Online

Senator Rubio’s Poverty Speech Muddled

A recent speech by U.S. Senator Marco Rubio laid out what his press office terms “Conservative Reforms for Combating Poverty.” It began well and had a nice line or two emphasizing the role family breakdown plays in perpetuating generational poverty, but then it went all technocratic and wobbly.

So, for instance, at one point he argued that a lack of education is one reason for the decline of marriage among the poor, noting that “64% of adults with college degrees are married, while only 47% of those with a high-school education or less are.” How does he know that being married doesn’t make one more likely to pursue higher education, or that both tendencies aren’t caused by something else?

He doesn’t say. Instead, he hurries on to call for more to be spent on government-led jobs programs. Maybe we do need to spend more on remedial education for adults, but if so, it’s largely because so many Americans get an awful elementary, middle and high school education. The United States spends more per capita educating its kids than almost any other country in the world, but because our public education system is protected from choice and competition, it’s been able to sink into mediocrity in many neighborhoods without losing its revenue stream. Instead of energetically addressing this root problem in the speech, Senator Rubio recommended more publicly funded education.

He followed with this recommendation: “Our anti-poverty programs should be replaced with a revenue neutral Flex Fund. We would streamline most of our existing federal anti-poverty funding into one single agency. Then each year, these Flex Funds would be transferred to the states so they can design and fund creative initiatives that address the factors behind inequality of opportunity.”

A piece at Townhall nicely summarized one problem with this strategy. “Yes, it is a type of federalism, but it is not a conservative federalism that shrinks government and holds government accountable,” Conn Carroll wrote. “It would be a major expansion of what George Mason University Law School professor Michael Greve calls ‘cartel federalism,’ a brand of federalism which is undermining the Founder’s true vision. Last year, Greve explained:

‘At the fiscal front, the central problem is the flood of transfer programs that encourage states to “experiment” with federal dollars. The most menacing example is Medicaid, which now consumes almost a quarter of state budgets. For the most part, this is not a result of federal coercion or mandates. It is a result of the states’ voluntary decisions to expand Medicaid so as to attract federal matching funds. The states’ perverse incentive to expand their domestic welfare state on our collective nickel—trillions of nickels—is, again, a federalism problem. So is the moral hazard that attends these arrangements that is, the risk that states will spend themselves to the brink of bankruptcy in hopes of a federal bailout. Greece exemplifies that problem; but then, so does Illinois.’”

A related problem is that Senator Rubio’s proposal would take a patchwork of federal programs and concentrate all that bureaucratic busyness and power into a single uber-agency. Think of the Department of Education, which has grown in power and influence since it became its own department and now, through the No Child Left Behind Act, has fully bloomed into another instance of cartel federalism.

Senator Rubio also told his audience that he was “developing legislation to replace the earned income tax credit with a federal wage enhancement for qualifying low-wage jobs…. Of course, the enhancement will be highly targeted to avoid fraud or abuse and the amount will depend on a range of factors.”

Yes, the strategy of Washington pols targeting and choosing winners and losers in the marketplace has gone so well in the past. Can’t have too much of that, can we? Here again, Conn Carroll is incisive:

All conservatives should ask themselves: Do I want to empower President Obama to decide which are the ‘qualifying low-wage jobs’ and which are not? Is there any doubt Obama, or future liberal presidents, would use this new government program to play favorites in the market place?

One could say the same about most Republican beltway politicians, for that matter. Crony capitalism is the air they breathe in Washington.

Senator Rubio’s proposals then move from the troubling to the incoherent. One moment he’s pushing the idea of states having the freedom to experiment with their welfare rules so “they could remove the marriage penalties in safety net programs like Medicaid.” Then he’s saying his “federal wage enhancement” program, in contrast to the earned income tax credit it’s to replace, “would apply the same to singles as it would to married couples and families with children.”

So Senator Rubio intends to erase a federal program that provides a little ballast against all the welfare programs with marriage penalties, but then merely wish on a lucky star that individual states get rid of the marriage penalties.

It gets weirder. In the speech he appeals to the Welfare Reform Act of the ‘90s as a model for his proposed reforms, but as Ramesh Ponnuru points out, a crucial feature of that earlier reform was a federal work-requirement mandate that applied to all 50 states.

Senator Rubio is rightly concerned about government-encoded marriage penalties, penalties that surely discourage marriage among the poor whether one is from a northern state or a southern state, from an urban setting or a rural one. The senator’s solution? Leave this first-order reform need to individual states — which have already demonstrated considerable fondness for marriage penalties — and instead pursue federal legislation that removes a key counterweight to existing marriage penalties.

Senator Rubio’s proposals would thus have the net effect of deepening the marriage penalty and empowering the political class to practice crony capitalism on a whole new front. For the love of the poor, let’s commemorate the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty some other way.