WASHINGTON — Sen. Marco Rubio on Wednesday proposed a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s anti-poverty programs, arguing that for decades Washington has been too fixed on dealing with poverty’s consequences rather than its causes.
The Florida Republican suggested giving federal funds to states so they could devise ways to combat poverty.
“Five decades and trillions of dollars after President Johnson waged his ‘War on Poverty,’ the results of this big-government approach are in,” Rubio said on the 50th anniversary of the day Johnson first declared his goal for government help to the poor.
“Our anti-poverty programs should be replaced with a revenue-neutral flex fund,” Rubio argued. “We would streamline most of our existing federal anti-poverty funding into one single agency.”
Each year, the flex funds would go to states “so they can design and fund creative initiatives that address the factors behind inequality of opportunity.”
Rubio offered no list as to what programs would be involved in his initiative, other than perhaps the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps.
The senator also proposed replacing the earned income tax credit, a popular break for lower- and moderate-income workers, with a “federal wage enhancement for qualifying low-wage jobs.”
Someone with a lower-paying job would also get a federal benefit, paid at the same time as the monthly paycheck. The amount, Rubio said, “will depend on a range of factors.”
Rubio’s address to a group of experts and reporters at the Capitol’s Lyndon B. Johnson Room was a marquee event during a day of reflection and speeches over how to tackle poverty.
The poverty rate was 15 percent in 2012, down slightly from the mid-1960s. Critics charge the change has been negligible and expensive. Supporters say the rate could be higher if not for the expansion of safety net programs.
Partisan divisions over how to proceed were clear Wednesday.
“We created new avenues of opportunity through jobs and education, expanded access to health care for seniors, the poor, and Americans with disabilities, and helped working families make ends meet,” President Barack Obama said in a statement.
At the Capitol, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., told the Senate that 50 years ago Johnson identified poverty as “a national problem. And that’s why he made it a national priority.”
“So I think we ought to rededicate ourselves today to that national priority,” said Murray, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee.
The nation is emerging from a deep recession, and unemployment in November was 7 percent, its lowest level in five years. The divide between rich and poor remains stark, triggering a flood of recent promises from the White House and congressional leaders to work to narrow the gap.
Rubio is one of three Republican senators mentioned as a possible 2016 presidential candidate talking about new approaches to government help for the poor.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is promoting “economic freedom zones,” which would provide tax breaks for companies and workers in high unemployment areas.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas urged several steps he said would reduce inequality, including repealing the Affordable Care Act, expanding energy production and stopping “abusive regulations that are hammering small businesses.”
Rubio, like other Republicans on Wednesday, first offered compassion and empathy for the poor. He explained how lower-income Americans today are plagued by a lack of lower-skilled jobs.
“The jobs that have replaced the low- and middle-skill jobs of the past pay more,” he said. “But they require a high level of professional, technical or management skills. And we simply have too many people who have never acquired the education needed to attain those skills.”
The solution does not lie in dictates from Washington, he contended.
“Our current president and his liberal allies propose that we address this by spending more on these failed programs and increasing the minimum wage to $10.10,” he noted. “Really? That is their solution to what President Obama has identified as the defining issue of our time?”
The Rubio approach contains two long-held Republican philosophies: Give the private sector an opportunity to thrive by removing regulatory burdens and unfair taxes and give the states more flexibility.
The plan is similar to the overhaul of the nation’s welfare system in 1996, when states got more responsibility to reduce dependence on government aid.