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January 08, 2014 4:22 PM Rubio: Something Old, Something (Maybe) New

By Ed Kilgore

Well, I have to admit, I didn’t expect Marco Rubio’s Big Speech on poverty policy today at AEI to be interesting at all. And maybe we’ll find out when the details emerge that it was boring and unoriginal after all.

Indeed, one of his two Big Proposals indeed sounds like the same-old, same-old (per Dave Weigel):

Our anti-poverty programs should be replaced with a revenue neutral Flex Fund. We would streamline most of our existing federal anti-poverty funding into one single agency. Then each year, these Flex Funds would be transferred to the states so they can design and fund creative initiatives that address the factors behind inequality of opportunity.
This worked in the 1990s with welfare reform. In that case, Congress gave the states the ability to design their own programs, and in turn the states enacted policies that promoted work rather than dependence. In the years that followed, this led to a decline in poverty rates and welfare expenses.
However, despite this success, Washington continues to rule over the world of anti-poverty policy-making, with beltway bureaucrats picking and choosing rigid nationwide programs and forcing America’s elected state legislatures to watch from the sidelines.

This, folks, is just the hardy perennial idea of a block grant, based on the theory that the feds should just become the tax collector for the states. It’s unclear at this point how Rubio would define the universe of “anti-poverty programs” (would it include Medicaid and food stamps?). And it’s probably deliberately unclear what if any conditions the federal government would impose on the states for all that money and responsibility. But in any event, this is all just rhetoric until such time as Republicans rule the federal government from ship to stern.

Rubio’s other “idea” is even hazier:

I am developing legislation to replace the earned income tax credit with a federal wage enhancement for qualifying low-wage jobs. This would allow an unemployed individual to take a job that pays, say, $18,000 a year - which on its own is not enough to make ends meet - but then receive a federal enhancement to make the job a more enticing alternative to collecting unemployment insurance.
Unlike the earned income tax credit, my proposal would apply the same to singles as it would to married couples and families with children. It would also be a preferable means of distributing benefits since it would arrive in sync with a monthly paycheck rather than a year-end lump-sum credit. And it’s a better way of supporting low-income workers than simply raising the minimum wage.

Since he’s still “developing legislation,” Rubio will likely be able to dodge the obvious questions. How would this “wage enhancement” be administered, if not via the tax code? Since low-income families would give up the EITC, how many of them would qualify for the replacement? Is this in fact limited to wage-earners coming off unemployment?

I’m hardly optimistic than the answers to any of these questions would satisfy anyone skeptical of a bait-and-switch. But at least Rubio did not, best I can tell, call for bringing back enterprise zones or prescribe the preemptive destruction of anti-poverty programs altogether. We’ll just have to see if his claim to offer “new ideas” is anything more than a cruel hoax.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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