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Remembering When Democrats Used to Take on Poverty

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The presidential election is only days away, so it's probably rather useless to hope that the Democratic ticket will sound like Democrats and raise issues that only the Democratic Party would raise--like tackling poverty.  But it looks like it's not to be.  The word "poverty" much less a strategy for dealing with poverty hasn't slipped out of President Obama's mouth during the debates.  Rather, with an implicit wink and nod, the Democratic national ticket has presented the nation with a Democratic version of trickle-down, that somehow a focus on some inchoate blend of policies to protect the middle class will trickle down to benefit the poor--who, it should be noted, aren't middle class even if they householders with jobs or sometimes multiple jobs.
So, let's see if we got this right.  The Democrats have largely sidestepped a national dialogue on dealing with poverty, and left it to Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan to deliver a speech explicitly addressing, albeit from a Romney-Ryan perspective, poverty in America.  
Perhaps he was trying to undo the damage of his running mate's body slam of 47 percent of the American population as a population dependent on government handouts.  Perhaps he was trying to demonstrate that the Romney campaign's trickle-down economic theories wouldn't further impoverish the millions of Americans living below the federal poverty level.  Perhaps it was all a campaign gimmick.
But Paul Ryan, the Republican candidate for Vice President, actually delivered a speech on poverty.  As we have written time and time again, it is a topic in the presidential debates that Governor Romney has mentioned as a fly-by statistic and President Obama has eschewed in favor of his campaign's laser-like  message focus on the middle class (here and here and here).
Interestingly, Ryan began his speech crediting Bob Woodson of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, which last month convened a national summit on poverty, focusing on community-based anti-poverty strategies.  Ryan cited the data--46 million Americans below the poverty level, the most since 1993, amounting to one out of every six Americans, and 20 percent of children under the age of 18.  It's not easy being poor, given that the federal poverty level for a family of four is all of $23,050.  You can add another 30 million people whose incomes are at 100 to 150 percent of the poverty level, an income level that is hard to imagine achieving more than subsistence.  
It isn't a partisan point to note that poverty has been on the upswing for a decade, through Democratic and Republican administrations, including the past four years of the Obama Administration.  What is partisan is what to do about it. 
Acknowledging that "Republicans have not been good at conveying their compassion for the poor and explaining their plans to help the disadvantaged," Ryan said that he and Governor Romney aim to change that dynamic.  Ryan excoriated government's "spend(ing) lots of money on centralized, bureaucratic, top-down anti-poverty programs."  This top-down approach, he said, has "created and perpetuated a debilitating culture of dependency, wrecking families and communities."  In a typical Republican trope, Ryan charged that the nation is "still trying to measure compassion by how much government spends, not by how many people we help escape from poverty."
Sounding the themes of President Bush's compassionate conservativism, Ryan said that he and Governor Romney, in contrast to the government spending advocates, "believe in true compassion and upward "a vision based on real reforms for lifting people out of poverty."  The roots of the Romney/Ryan anti-poverty strategy?  According to the Wisconsin Congressman, it is based on "the importance of community."  In policy terms, he described the strategy as "a balance--allowing government to act for the common good, while leaving private groups free to do the work that only they can do."  In fact, he cited Woodson as one of the people in this nation "who define civil society and make it work."
Without addressing the fact that a Romney administration would cut federal safety net spending by some unspecified but nonetheless substantial amount, Ryan promised that the Romney presidency would still provide a safety net, but remove overbearing federal regulations and mandates, including those that apply to anti-poverty programs such as Medicaid and food stamps, and entrust more decision-making authority to state governments "to make these programs more effective."
Many observers would suggest that Ryan's proposals for community-based anti-poverty strategies, while sounding good and communitarian, are pretty hollow with the likelihood of cascading cutbacks in federal safety net and entitlement programs.  Talking about removing governmental impediments from anti-poverty activists doesn't go very far when nonprofits don't have the resources to deliver on their community-based missions.  
But give Ryan credit.  He was talking directly about poverty, inviting a debate on how to reduce and eradicate poverty in an otherwise immensely affluent America.  You can hear the voice of his mentor, the late Congressman and HUD Secretary Jack Kemp, who was the Republican author of policies that many people accept as commonplace such as the idea for empowerment and enterprise zones.   Esquire's political columnist Charles P. Pierce detailed what he called Ryan's "stunningly disingenuous" analysis and proposals, but he noted, as we do, that "dammit, it was a speech. About poverty." Pierce observed, "Republicans are right to talk about the 46 million people living in poverty. Dead wrong about why, and dangerously wrong about the solutions, but at the very least, they're bringing up the topic."
There is plenty to question in Ryan's prescriptions, especially given his leadership in cutting safety net and entitlement programs in Congress, joining the Republican majority in the House to protect the military budget while shrinking discretionary domestic spending.  Nonetheless, he opened the door to what could have been and should have been a vigorous discussion about eradicating poverty in the most affluent nation in the world.  One might have countered, as a Democrat, with a full-throated call for increased stimulus--from the executive branch, not just Ben Bernanke at the Federal Reserve--as  has been long needed rather than the current presidential hints of a post-election "grand bargain" with the Republicans toward negotiating an austerity budget to achieve deficit reduction, which William K. Black writing in OpEdNews called a strategy for the "destruction of the safety net."
Wouldn't it have been a nice change of pace for the Democrats, the party of FDR's New Deal and LBJ's War on Poverty , to explain what they would do specifically about poverty as opposed to offering a read-between-the-lines strategy cloaked in policy solutions for the middle class?
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Rick Cohen is a commentator on the politics of nonprofits and foundations, writer for Nonprofit Quarterly, editor of NPQ's Cohen Report, former executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy

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