I realize that I ought to be writing about Chris Christie, the recently re-elected Republican governor of New Jersey, who has just had a brush with political death. But though I wish Christie well, and though I continue to believe that he is one of the most promising elected conservatives to have emerged in my lifetime, the Republican future rests less on the fate of individuals and more on the fate of ideas. And this week, one of Christie’s fellow presidential aspirants, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, introduced a genuinely new idea for helping tens of millions of Americans escape poverty.
On Thursday, the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s declaration of a “War on Poverty,” Rubio gave an address that weaved together stories from the lives of his immigrant parents with the barriers to upward mobility facing people very much like them today. “America is still the land of opportunity for most, but it is not a land of opportunity for all,” Rubio told the assembled crowd, drawing on the fact that 70 percent of U.S. children raised in poverty never achieve middle-income status.
Conservatives are known for celebrating American exceptionalism, and Rubio does so himself. Yet in this speech, he raised a number of awkward truths, like the fact that more Canadians surpass their parents’ incomes than Americans. Moreover, he offered a clear-eyed, if not complete, diagnosis of the reasons why so many Americans raised at the bottom of the income distribution remain stuck there. In the past, the U.S. economy was dynamic enough to replace jobs lost to automation or offshoring with new jobs. Yet that dynamism has suffered in recent years, and the result has been a series of jobless recoveries, each more disappointing than the last. After decades during which the educational attainment of Americans steadily increased, educational gains have stagnated. Nonmarital childbearing has grown more common, a seemingly self-reinforcing development in which the diminished economic prospects for less-skilled men make them less attractive as partners, and the sons of single mothers find it exceptionally difficult to stay in school.
Recognizing the complexity of the problems facing poor Americans, Rubio doesn’t propose a single silver bullet for fighting poverty. Rather, he calls for a two-pronged approach that rewards those who step on the first rungs of the economic ladder by taking low-wage jobs, and gives state and local governments more flexibility in meeting the needs of their most vulnerable citizens.
Though there are major details to be ironed out, Rubio’s basic idea is to consolidate anti-poverty programs into a single Flex Fund, which would be disbursed to state governments to design and fund their own anti-poverty initiatives. At the same time, he calls for replacing the earned income tax credit with a federal wage enhancement designed to raise the effective hourly wage for low-wage jobs. Rubio states that whereas the EITC offers very little to single workers without children, his wage enhancement would help increase disposable income. And whereas the EITC arrives in the form of a lump sum payment, the wage enhancement would come with every paycheck.