On the fiftieth anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, in the second floor Capitol room named after him, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), presented the conservative rebuttal—and laid the groundwork for his own presidential campaign. He went big.
“What I am proposing today is the most fundamental change to how the federal government fights poverty and encourages income mobility since President Johnson first conceived of the War on Poverty fifty years ago,” said Rubio, according to his prepared remarks.
He outlined two major changes. One would move most of America’s existing federal anti-poverty funding into one single agency, which would administer a “revenue neutral flex fund” and dole out grants to states. The other major change would be to replace the earned income tax credit with a federal wage enhancement that would be “highly targeted” to avoid fraud or abuse. Rubio also mentioned “bolstering” the nation’s existing job-training system and addressing the shortage in skilled labor through encouraging alternatives to the traditionally accredited college degree. Alex Conant, Rubio’s press secretary, said to expect legislation “sometime in the coming weeks,” but with a Senate Democratic majority, it’s highly unlikely that anything will come of it.
Welfare and poverty experts are mixed on Rubio’s proposals.
“Turning federal programs into block grants is a shopworn idea with a long history of disappointment,” Peter Edelman, a former aide to Senator Robert F. Kennedy and faculty director of Georgetown University’s Center on Poverty, Inequality, and Public Policy, writes TIME. “Without specificity and standards, there is no accountability and no assurance that funds will be used for their intended purposes.”
“If Senator Rubio is proposing something that seriously promises to create jobs and pay decent wages, we can talk,” he added. “I see nothing in his speech that contains anything of the kind.”
“Turning over more responsibility to the states can be part of the solution,” counters Isabel Sawhill, a poverty and federal fiscal policy expert at the Brookings Institute. “It would encourage more innovation, simplify program administration, and allow programs to be better tailored to the needs of a community.”
“I have two concerns,” adds Sawhill, who advocates for raising the minimum wage and reforming the Earned Income Tax Credit. “First, states must be given sufficient resources to do the job well and second, the amount of basic assistance you receive as an American shouldn’t depend just on where you live.”
While the country won’t decide its next President for nearly three years, Rubio spoke like a candidate, opening his speech with the hardship encountered by his Cuban immigrant parents—humbly calling it a “common” America story—and ending on a note of the country’s exceptionalism. Rubio managed to portray himself as someone with enough Washington experience to know how things get done, but not so much that he is associated with how little gets done. All of that, and a dash of patriotism.
“I haven’t been in Washington long, but I’ve been here long enough to know that everything here gets analyzed through the lens of electoral politics,” said Rubio. “But upward mobility and equal opportunity is not a partisan issue, it is our unifying American principle.”