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Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, speaks with voters at a campaign event in Nashua, N.H.

Voices / Column

Candidates miss the important connections

The Republicans competing for the presidential nomination don’t get the reality of poverty

Elayne Clift writes regularly about women, politics, and social issues.

Saxtons River

When six Republicans met in South Carolina recently to discuss combating poverty, their focus was predictable.

Marco Rubio talked about broken families, dangerous neighborhoods, substandard housing, failing schools, and drug dealers, all while rejecting the idea of raising the federal minimum wage. He argued that welfare should be turned over to states, especially those that have recipient work requirements.

Jeb Bush, who agrees with Rubio on states taking over welfare, blathered about giving Americans the “right to rise.”

Ben Carson said that “some people hate rats, some hate roaches, I hated poverty.”

And Chris Christie warned against drug addiction as the gateway to incarceration.

Rubio invoked his parents — a bartender and a maid — to extol rising above poverty. But they had jobs that presumably they could get to without too much hassle, steady incomes and, it would seem, someone to watch the kids.

Bush’s comments smacked of not wanting the problem in his neighborhood, and Carson seemed to equate poor people with vermin.

It reminded me of Paul Ryan and the accolades he received when he said he “could not, and would not, give up [his] family time” to serve as House majority leader. But does he suggest that ideal for people who spend hours waiting for several buses to get to two or three minimum-wage jobs, worried that there is no “angel in the house” to take care of the kids, and no decent day care?

Does he realize, as Judith Shulevitz pointed out in a recent New York Times op-ed, that more than four times as many American families are run by single moms as by single dads, and that a third more households are headed by women on welfare than those run by men?

* * *

The fact is, the Republicans competing for the presidential nomination don’t get the reality of poverty.

They’ve never lived it, and they don’t like it. The only emotion it seems to raise in them is pity. God knows it’s never empathy.

Nor do they get the interconnections among major federal issues in need of urgent attention and poverty alleviation. Shove punitive, top-down, us/them welfare problems back to the states — that’s their mantra. They don’t want to see it, and they don’t want to deal with it, because dealing with it means addressing really big issues — and then funding them.

Transportation infrastructure is one example. None of the naysayers has ever had to get to work without a car (and often a driver).

How willing would any be to rise in the wee hours of the morning to catch several buses in any kind of weather?

How many of them have ridden sophisticated transportation systems in other countries, where wait times are almost nil and connections are well planned so that people who really work for a living can be moved about by the millions with relatively little hassle?

How many of the Horatio Alger guys have had to worry about quality, affordable, accessible daycare?

Hey, People on the Hill: Poor folk don’t have nannies! They don’t have stay-at-home spouses. They don’t even have enough food to feed their kids half the time. And some of you want to cut food stamps?

Speaking of nutrition, it’s a big part of staying healthy so you can work. So is affordable, accessible, quality health care. It might be worth factoring that into the equation for ending poverty while you’re trying to gut Obamacare or avoid universal health care.

I wish Republicans who talk in clichés would understand important connections like these.

* * *

Judith Shulevitz raised an interesting approach in her Times piece. She pointed out that a number of countries are contemplating a “universal basic income,” or UBI.

A proposal in Finland, for example, would experiment with giving every adult 800 euros (about $870) a month. Switzerland and Canada are among other countries calling for similar experimentation.

The rationale is that it’s a way to reimburse people who lead productive lives, like mothers and other caregivers who don’t receive money for what they contribute to society. (About 30 years ago, a social scientist figured out that if women were remunerated for all they do, their worth would be something like $40,000 annually. Imagine what that would be in today’s economy!)

The UBI also reflects “a necessary condition for a just society,” as Shulevitz puts it. It’s seen as a general entitlement in this framework. It’s also been called “a floor below which nobody need fall.”

Basic-income proposals like this one from both right and left are not new, but they are complex. It’s something to think about while good folks genuinely strategize around ending poverty in our rich country. Of course, the Republicans who flap their cakeholes about poverty would never consider such an idea.

The thing is, maybe it can help move them toward more rational, responsible thinking about poverty alleviation.

At least they might not dump it all on the states as nothing more than a local problem loaded with society’s detritus.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #343 (Wednesday, February 10, 2016). This story appeared on page D1.

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