The subject of poverty has once again (thankfully) made its way back into the national spotlight, as the nation commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of former president Lyndon Johnson's “War On Poverty.” Johnson and his administration were responsible for creating many critical social welfare initiatives that millions of Americans still rely upon today, including Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps. In typical fashion, politicians and pundits on both sides of the aisle are lining up to name Johnson's mission a success or a failure, along with offering a variety of suggestions on how to ensure further victories in the years to come. During a speech on Wednesday at a high-profile “War On Poverty” anniversary party in DC, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida – better known as the King Of Cotton Mouth County – not only slammed Obama's (woefully inadequate) minimum wage increase proposal, but offered up a solution of his own that would have Johnson turning over in his grave.
“I am proposing that we turn over Washington’s anti-poverty programs and the trillions that are spent on them to the states. Our anti-poverty program should be replaced with a revenue-neutral flex fund. We would streamline most of our existing federal anti-poverty funding into a 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.”Did it, Mr. Rubio? Did it, really? It never ceases to amaze me how people can just get up on national television and lie with a straight face about issues like entitlement reform, issues that affect the lives of millions. Let's take a look at the facts, shall we?
Clinton's welfare reform program was an abject failure, a political ploy put forward by centrist Democrats during his tenure to appease increasingly rabid Republican opposition to political bogeymen like Reagan's “welfare queens” and the “nanny state.” Democratic concessions in this arena culminated in the replacement of the Aid To Families With Dependent Children program (AFDC) with the far more conservative Temporary Assistance To Needy Families program (TANF). The shift left millions of Americans in the lurch, drastically raising the poverty rate and condemning the poor to chew on their bootstraps.
So how does TANF work, you ask? The same way that Rubio's proposals for the rest of the safety net do: by handing the power to enact and fund social welfare programs over to individual states. While they must be allowed to exist, states for whom social welfare programs are ideological anathema have the ability to hamstring those programs not only in terms of funding, but in terms of access. The only people for whom TANF has been of any real benefit are those whose careers require them to call it a success...people just like Senator Marco Rubio.
Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! asked Peter Edelman, faculty director at the Center on Poverty, Inequality, and Public Policy at Georgetown University, about Rubio's proposal on Thursday, and he had this to say the about the whole thing:
“These are—turning it over to the states is a shopworn idea. It goes back decades. What it does is it leaves it to states like Mississippi and Texas and others that could care less. And [inaudible] of national standards like food stamps—are people hungrier in New York than they are in Mississippi? I don’t think so. And to say, "Well, the state will decide how hungry you are and how much we’ll pay," makes no sense.”By making social welfare programs a “state's rights” issue, we allow far too much latitude for localized prejudices to be institutionalized within them, to the detriment of those who need these programs the most. “State's rights” is the same principle that lies at the root of some of the most repugnant cause conservatives and Libertarians have championed: Jim Crow laws, marriage equality, abortion rights, and last year's gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court, just to name a few. As you can see, Rubio's proposal isn't the first occasion we've seen this canard trotted out, just one of the more politically expedient ones.