In an address marking the 50th anniversary of LBJ’s war on poverty today, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said the focus needs to be not on income inequality but lack of upward mobility in the job market.
“Today, the debate on poverty is primarily focused on the growing income gap between the rich and poor. From 1979 to 2007, income for the highest-earning Americans grew more than it did for anyone else. From 1980 to 2005, over 80% of the total increase in income went to the top 1% of American earners. These are indeed startling figures, and they deserve attention. But they do not give us a complete view of the problem before us,” Rubio said in the Lyndon B. Johnson Room of the Capitol.
“Yes, the cashier at a fast food chain makes significantly less than the company’s CEO. The problem we face is not simply the gap in pay between them, but rather that too many of those cashiers are stuck in the same job for years on end, unable to find one that pays better.”
Rubio noted that 70% of children born into poverty “will never make it to the middle class.”
“The uncomfortable truth is that there are now a number of other countries with as much or more opportunity than ours. In fact, more people in Canada go on to surpass the income of their parents than in the United States,” he said. “America is still the land of opportunity for most, but it is not a land of opportunity for all. If we are to remain an exceptional nation, we must close this gap in opportunity.”
The senator said the jobs that have replaced the low- and middle-skilled jobs of the past pay more but “we simply have too many people who have never acquired the education needed to attain those skills.”
On President Obama’s quest to raise the minimum wage: “Raising the minimum wage may poll well, but having a job that pays $10 an hour is not the American Dream.”
Free enterprise, Rubio said, is “the single greatest engine of upward mobility in human history at our disposal.”
“Allowing free enterprise to flourish alone is not enough. We have to address the complex and interrelated societal, cultural and educational impediments holding so many people back,” he said. “…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.”
“This worked in the 1990s with welfare reform. In that case, Congress gave the states the ability to design their own programs, and in turn the states enacted policies that promoted work rather than dependence. In the years that followed, this led to a decline in poverty rates and welfare expenses,” Rubio continued. “It’s wrong for Washington to tell Tallahassee what programs are right for the people of Florida – but it’s particularly wrong for it to say that what’s right for Tallahassee is the same thing that’s right for Topeka and Sacramento and Detroit and Manhattan and every other town, city and state in the country.”
“…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. As we’ve seen, they could put in place programs that give those currently stuck in low-wage jobs access to a job training system. They could put in place relocation vouchers that will help the long-term unemployed to move to areas with more jobs. They could remove the marriage penalties in safety net programs like Medicaid. And they could enact a nearly infinite number of other nimble and targeted reforms to address the needs of their people.”
The work to be done on the federal government’s end, he said, should “encourage and reward work.”
“While our workforce delivery system must be driven by states, the federal government can help address the shortage in many skilled labor jobs by creating more pathways toward obtaining these certification credentials, and by encouraging alternatives to the traditionally accredited college degree,” Rubio said. “Unlike our current programs, these reforms address the causes of opportunity inequality, not just the consequences. And as a result they will help move our country closer to a day when widespread poverty is a memory, and equal opportunity is available to more people than ever before.”