The Conservative War on Poverty

Senator Tim Scott and Speaker Paul Ryan
(L-R) U.S. Senator Tim Scott and Speaker Paul Ryan, welcome U.S. Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush, Ben Carson and Governor Chris Christie in a forum at the 2016 Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity in Columbia, South Carolina, January 9, 2016. The forum featured six presidential candidates and focused on their ideas for fighting poverty and expanding opportunity in America. REUTERS/Randall Hill - RTX21N8Z

This past week, Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) came to speak on campus about the future of the Republican Party, speaking at lengths about the necessary image and agenda the party must demonstrate in 2016 and beyond. In his speech, Senator Scott was asked to address one of the most pressing issues facing Republicans today: how does the Grand Old Party address poverty in the 21st century, helping those who have been seemingly left behind find their place in society?

This is a question Republicans have been striving to answer for quite some time now. Many people, including some Republicans, have an ingrained image that the GOP is a party for old, white men who make their money through capital gains. To them, the poor, marginalized, and downtrodden have no business dealing with Republicans, resigning them to lives of government programs. These images couldn’t be farther from the truth.

In answering the question, Senator Scott specified two key values of the GOP as the focal point of the conservative war on poverty: freedom and opportunity. Scott has found in his personal life just how important these two values are in lifting people from destitution, as he described his early life growing up in a single-parent household in Charleston, SC. The Senator mentioned how he found mentors that encouraged his work ethic and his drive for excellence, always highlighting how he was free to do anything he set his ambitions towards. Never in his formative years did he just give up and resign to a life of malaise and dependency, as he knew that anything was possible in America so long as he worked tirelessly towards his goal.

Of course, what does any of this mean in terms of applicable solutions that the GOP can implement to address poverty? As Scott described, the GOP must pursue policies that empower people to chase opportunity, rather than the traditional poverty agenda of creating innumerable entitlement and welfare programs that simply let people stagnate in their dire circumstances. This means creating an economy where all people have a chance to succeed, rather than a hostile economic environment with so many rules and regulations that only those wealthy enough to hire lawyers can navigate it. As such, government programs should be aimed at encouraging work and rewarding hard-earned success, such as the earned income tax credit. In the inner cities, where so many burdensome regulations have created economic dead zones, lawmakers should pursue policies to bring well-paying jobs back to the residents, by means of enterprise zones with lower taxes and less onerous regulations.

Of course, it’s not enough to just bring jobs back to impoverished people. Lawmakers and politicians must also provide citizens with the means to pursue greater opportunities. As Senator Scott also emphasized, this necessarily requires education reform, providing students from lower-income households with more choices and chances to succeed at school. For conservatives like Scott, this means dramatically expanding school choice, freeing students and families from under-performing school systems that can’t properly address their needs. This can be done a number of ways, through school vouchers, charter schools, and increased vocational education and apprenticeships. What won’t work in improving school choice, though, is throwing more money at a broken system, especially when standardized education like Common Core takes even less consideration of the students’ needs.

Clearly, the GOP has the tools to help millions of Americans rise from poverty and achieve the American dream. Republicans must enact real reform by mobilizing around the policies of the opportunity agenda. Fortunately, there has never been a better time for compassionate conservatives to spread this message. This may seem a little counter-intuitive to some, considering the level of vitriol and nastiness we’re witnessing in the current presidential election. However, many vocal proponents of the “opportunity agenda” have risen to national prominence, elevating their message along with them. Speaker Ryan (R-WI) has spoken at lengths about all the things Republicans can do to improve the lives of our fellow citizens struggling with poverty. At the state level, many optimistic conservatives have risen to power with missions to address local issues, such as Governor Larry Hogan (R-MD) and my own governor, Charlie Baker (R-MA). And, believe it or not, this presidential campaign could have focused around this exact issue (before a certain bull in the china shop changed everything, at least), as many Republican candidates have their own experience fighting poverty a number of ways across the nation.

As Senator Scott has visibly demonstrated, the Republican Party is ready to tackle poverty. As soon as we start enacting our policy visions and helping Americans find opportunity in their lives, these people, having been caught in poverty traps for much of their lives, will be able to rise from destitution and enjoy the American dream. Senator Scott ended his speech with some parting words of optimism and hope, capturing the passion behind the opportunity agenda: as a country and a people, our best days are yet to come.