No moment in recent memory better encapsulates conservative struggles with the those living in poverty (predominantly non-whites) than Mitt Romney’s 47% comment. Speaking at a closed-door event full of conservative business donors, the former Massachusetts Governor famously uttered, “There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. There are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.” The damage was not the commentary on the political divide in this country but rather the seemingly flippant disregard for the votes and policy preferences of the working poor.
It is no secret that the poor vote overwhelmingly Democratic. In the 2010 election, when Republicans were riding a Tea Party wave, exit polls for numerous Senate and Congressional races showed they lost those making $30,000 and below. In the 2012 Presidential election, Obama won the votes of those making less than $50K by over 20% and they made up 41% of the electorate (reflecting America’s stagnant economic growth). Reflecting the policy preferences of their party’s base many Democrats have called for an ever-widening social safety net. Republicans, whose base is up scale and suburban/rural, have yet to jump onto the bandwagon.
Of the 10 largest metropolitan areas in the nation, Republicans only control San Diego and Indianapolis. Unlike many other large urban areas these cities have maintained a significant two-party presence. Cities such as Detroit, Philadelphia, and Chicago have not had Republican mayors since the 60s. Not only has this led to progressive visions of governance being fulfilled and making the “cycle of poverty” even worse in these cities it has locked conservatives out of the White House in four of the last six elections. Consider, two/thirds of of Obama’s popular vote lead came from three cities (Detroit, Philadelphia and Chicago).
Conservatives and Republicans have rightly noted that Democratic progressive governance has broken most of America’s major cities. Writing for the National Journal, Kevin Williamson notes that Democratic governance has led to higher taxes fueling “middle class” (not white) flight, the weakening of public education to court union votes and the fueling of racial/economic tensions. What Williamson fails to note however is that since the 80’s the GOP has largely ceded these voters and the cities to the left. Traditional issues on which the GOP dominates; taxes, spending, defense, appeal to suburban and rural voters but they do not play among America’s growing and diverse urban poor. By not fielding a limited vision of local governance the GOP has allowed the idea of progressivism to filter into everyday urban life.
Some on the right have taken notice. These individuals have argued the GOP needs to come up with an agenda that offers to lift people out of poverty beyond the typical old fair. These ideas are diverse. They run the gambit from wealth transfers (which is what any tax is) to Paul Ryan’s popular idea to double the Earned Income Tax Credit. The Earned Income Tax Credit was conceived as a bipartisan way to deal with poverty and incentivize work. It remains one of America’s most successful tools to combat poverty. Doubling the EITC even has the President’s support.
The increased libertarian strain within the GOP and power of third-party groups has made bringing anti-poverty ideas out of the dark and into the light more difficult. Some of the new breed of GOP leaders such as Senator Ted Cruz (TX) have focused more on their ambitions than the good of the party and nation. Still, other conservatives and Republicans have not been cowed. The fact Ryan, the party’s 2012 VP candidate and chair of the House’s powerful Budget Committee would stand behind an idea backed by the President is proof.
There is no reason conservatives cannot mix small government ideas with pilot anti-poverty programs. Numerous GOP Governors have done so. In Indiana and Ohio, Governors Mike Pence and John Kasich, have implemented Medicaid expansions tailored to their states. Ditto in Michigan. Future 2016 Presidential candidates Rand Paul and Marco Rubio have called for streamlining the nation’s massive and cumbersome anti-poverty administrations.
At the local level former Republican/Independent NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg implemented a plan adopted from Mexico called Conditional Cash Transfers. These programs all have variations but essentially they advocate incentiving the poor to undertake positive behaviors. In NYC’s case the program largely failed because it was to comprehensive and only paid out for long-term goals. But in Memphis, Tennessee, according to Politico the program is alive and well. The idea has the backing of Republican Governor Bill Haslam (though it does not use taxpayer funding).
Democrats have undergone somewhat of a reform movement themselves. Within the party is a divide over whether to confront unions on the failure of major cities public schools and funding for charter schools. In Newark, New Jersey, former Mayor and current US Senator Corey Booker worked to expand the city’s charter system. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel successfully urged the city’s Board of Education to increase funding for charter schools. Reformation of the public school system is widely seen as crucial to aid lifting people out of poverty.
The way conservatives talk about poverty may be just as important as their plans on how to solve it. Notably, the way Rubio and Paul talk about poverty and crime differs greatly from those of Cruz and Congressional Republicans. Whereas Rubio and Paul (and Ryan) often mention how the poor work and strive to succeed, Congressional and Senate Republicans stick to the message of low taxes and spending without mention of how this will benefit the poor. Democrats have found great electoral success by calling these ideas “trickle down economics.”
Simple ideas from drug sentencing reform can offer significant benefits for the conservative movement and the GOP if they get behind them. Draconian drug laws in the country have fueled poverty for decades. Rand Paul has taken to talking to minority communities across the country about drug sentencing reform and libertarian, economic principles. Chris Christie in New Jersey was notable for going into urban, poor Newark suburbs to talk to poor African-Americans and Hispanics. Conservatives would be wise to follow these examples.
Ultimately, conservatives and the GOP need to rehabilitate their image with low income voters. They can do so by promoting ideas to solve or alleviate poverty even if those ideas have the support of the President. Local and state initiatives that incentize good behavior should be promoted. Lastly, the party should stop ceding the urban core of America to the Left’s failed anti-povery agenda. The poor deserve to have two dissenting opinions on how to better their lives and they should hear both. Conservatives and Republicans should give them one.