President Lyndon B. Johnson declared America’s “unconditional” War on Poverty fifty years ago Wednesday, setting up far-reaching government initiatives like Medicaid, a greatly expanded food stamp program, and federally funded education programs. A half century later, Democrats and Republicans agree that more work needs to be done, but the War on Poverty has become a war of words.
While both parties bemoan many of the same symptoms, they hardly agree on the disease, let alone the medicine. Democrats focus on income inequality: the gap between the nation’s highest and lowest earners is at its greatest level since the Roaring Twenties. Republicans, on the other hand, emphasize social mobility: the declining ease with which Americans can rise from the middle class to the top wage bracket. That makes the coming push less about policy as it is about election-year politics.
“While they may be using some of the same words, their perspectives are entirely different,” GOP pollster Whit Ayers said of the divide between Democrats and Republicans on the issue. “And that leads to fundamentally different conclusions.”
Ahead of the midterm elections, the Democrats’ shift to income inequality has been previewed for months, drawing from Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s fiery speeches ridiculing too-big-to-fail banks and their weak regulators last summer to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent win after his “Tale of Two Cities” campaign. The issue was a focal point of the president’s second campaign, and will be at the center of his State of the Union Address later this month.
Many Republicans, meanwhile, have been pushing their party to address the issue of social mobility since just after the 2012 presidential election, concerned that their party had become defined more by what it opposes than what it favors. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Rep. Paul Ryan, and Sen. Marco Rubio have emerged as some of the leading voices for Republicans to prove that they care—even for what former Republican nominee Mitt Romney awkwardly called the “47 percent.” On Sunday, Rubio called for weaning back LBJ’s government expansion, so that “50 years from now, nobody in America will be trapped in a life of poverty.” Separately, Sen. Rand Paul has traveled to urban areas to pitch “economic freedom zones” to revitalize growth and increase opportunities in blighted areas.
First on the Democrats’ agenda is an immediate three month, $6.5 billion extension of unemployment insurance. House Republicans oppose the Senate measure, calling for the legislation to be paid for through cuts elsewhere. Sens. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), a co-author of the bill, and Susan Collins (R-Maine) publicly support the legislation; Majority Leader Harry Reid needs three other Republicans to join 55 Democratic and Independent senators for passage. Democrats also plan a push to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to around $10, even though Obama failed to enact an increase to $9 last year as he called for in his 2013 State of the Union. Lawmakers also want to expand the availability of pre-kindergarten education, pointing to an array of studies showing it leads to greater success later in life.
Democrats believe that raising the minimum wage is a particular political winner. “I don’t mean to be too pithy but I think the demographic is fairness,” says progressive pollster John Anzalone, who notes that Democrats do “surprisingly good” on this issue with women and Hispanics. “What it does do is it sends a signal to them—who’s side are you on?”
The Republican effort centers around traditional party priorities like school choice and welfare reform. On Wednesday, Rubio will call on the party to apply the lessons of the 1996 welfare reform legislation to reform other government programs. That same day Cantor will deliver remarks at the Brookings Institution reiterating the GOP’s longstanding call for school vouchers, among other reforms. The focus reflects the realization that the party’s long-term hopes ride on reaching out to younger voters who are frustrated with the status quo, by positioning the GOP as the party of smarter reforms. “There is absolutely an opportunity for Republicans to go on offense on these issues,” said a Rubio aide.
Both sides largely reject the others’ proposals as misguided. “The goal ought to be, is to get people out of entry-level jobs, into better jobs, better-paying jobs. That’s better education. That’s a growing economy,” Ryan said in response to President Obama’s State of the Union last year. “I don’t think raising the minimum wage, and history is very clear about this, doesn’t actually accomplish those goals.” Democrats object that Republicans are trying to gut welfare programs and public education with their so-called reforms.
At the root of the dueling rhetoric around the The War on Poverty is a political question: Does the government enable, or is it an enabler?
“There is a lot more clarity on the current trends in inequality than there is on what to do about it, much less any agreement,” said Isabel Sawhill, Senior Fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution. “Amongst experts there is much more clarity. We need a bipartisan agreement about what to do about inequality because if we don’t nothing will happen.”
Here is a back-of-the envelope breakdown of the two parties’ strategies for taking on the problems of income inequality.
The Democratic Strategy
The Republican Strategy
Both parties admit a political motivation in their embrace of these messages.
“The tectonic plates of our politics have shifted in the last few years,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, told reporters on a Sunday conference call highlighting Democrats’ shift to inequality. “Our politics are changing, and the issues which have dominated our politics in the past—both Obamacare and the deficit—are not unimportant, but these types of issues may now supersede them.”
But so far, both sides’ have provided more talk than action. In a memo obtained by TIME, Majority Leader Cantor’s January to-do list sent to legislators Jan. 3 doesn’t mention the introduction of any specific measures to address social mobility.