Conservatives Say War on Poverty Failed

On 50th anniversary of LBJ speech

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Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

From left: Rep. Steve Scalise, Rep. Marlin Stutzman, Rep. Rep. Steve Southerland, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp and Rep. Jim Jordan hold a news conference at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center Jan. 8, 2014 in Washington, D.C.

Conservative lawmakers argued Wednesday that former President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty has been a failure, even as they acknowledged its role in reducing the percentage of poor Americans 50 years later.

“While this war may have been launched with the best of intentions, it’s clear we’re now engaged in a battle of attrition that has left more Americans in poverty than at any other point in our nation’s history,” Florida Republican Rep. Steve Southerland said.

Southerland was speaking at a news conference organized by the Republican Study Committee, a large group of conservative lawmakers in the House. With the White House preempting the attack and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor each delivering their own speeches on poverty Wednesday, the news conference underscored the Republicans’ challenging task in proving through policy that they care for the most economically desperate Americans.

All of it came on the 50th anniversary of Johnson’s first speech declaring war on poverty. The White House released a report showing that the percent of the population in poverty has declined from 25.8% in 1967 to 16% in 2012.

“I do not agree with that data,” said Southerland, who leads the House Republicans’ anti-poverty task force, before agreeing with the crux of it. “The percentage of people in poverty today as compared to 50 years ago, as a percentage, is less, but I also I want to make sure that it is very clear that today there are more Americans living in poverty. Obviously our population has increased. When we start talking about and validating and saying it’s good that 46 million Americans are living in poverty, I think that’s a sad day in America.”

When asked why the public sees an empathy gap between Democrats and Republicans, reaffirmed in last month’s NBC/WSJ poll, Southerland said “a lot of it” is due to “political banter,” before raising his personal work as chairman of the Panama City Salvation Army, among other posts. He also lauded retiring Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) for meeting with every food bank in his district every 90 days.

“I dare one of you to print that tomorrow,” said Southerland to the gaggle of reporters. “There’s a lot of Frank Wolf’s in the Republican conference. I am privileged to serve with these Republicans behind me because I know they are compassionate and they care for the very vulnerable among us.”

But there was little offered in the way of specific, new anti-poverty policies. Southerland announced a “springboard for future action,” but the members mostly reiterated their support for policies like building the Keystone XL pipeline, tax reform and work requirements for food stamps.

The Republican members were more prone to highlight the current state of poverty in America. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a former RSC chair, noted that one in seven Americans live below the poverty line. Speaking of Democratic attempts to renew emergency unemployment insurance that expired last month for 1.3 million Americans, Jordan said Congress had already extended the benefits 13 times in the past five years. Rep. Steve Scalise, the current RSC Chair, said that all the government had to show for the 50 year War on Poverty was $15 trillion spent and 10 million more people in poverty.

“Actually, the formula for beating poverty is a job,” said House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp. “This administration has no real focus on job creation—they are really focused on how long [unemployment] checks are being received.”