Democrats may have taken up income inequality as their election-year campaign platform, but Republicans appear determined to not let their counterparts own the subject.
To the annoyance of some Democrats, six members of the conservative Republican Study Committee held a news conference Wednesday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the "war on poverty" and to call for a different tactic to address indigence in this nation — one that is leaner on direct aid and more robust in job creation.
"While this war may have been launched with the best of intentions, it's clear we're now engaged in a battle of attrition that has left more Americans in poverty than at any other point in our nation's history," Rep. Steve Southerland II, R-Fla., said at the beginning of the news conference, noting that more than 46 million Americans live in poverty today. He did not point out, however, that even though the raw number of poverty-stricken people has increased, the percentage of poor Americans has fallen from 19 percent when President Lyndon B. Johnson announced his "unconditional war on poverty" in 1964 to about 15 percent today.
Southerland, the chairman of the RSC's anti-poverty initiative, said that in the 50 years of the war on poverty, the government has spent more than $15 trillion on programs designed to combat those issues.
"Clearly, the big government ideas of the past need to be improved and aren't working to the extent that they should," Southerland said. "We have a moral obligation to break the mold."
Southerland said there were three pillars to fighting poverty: two-parent families, quality education and a stable job.
"Over the next year, we will be bringing interested members together to discuss conservative solutions that empower individuals and not the federal government," he said.
But some Democrats complained that there was an obvious contradiction to conservative members addressing the issue of poverty. For example, Southerland recently led the charge to cut the food stamp program by allowing states to tie benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to requirements for at least 20 hours of work, work training, volunteering or other such programs.
"It's the epitome of hypocrisy to talk about cutting people off of food stamps and reducing the amount of monies that are allocated for the food stamps, the SNAP program, and then to come and talk about a war on poverty," Georgia Democrat Hank Johnson said, claiming that Republicans talk about the war on poverty "in a way that disparages" the effort to eliminate poverty in this country.
"And then the only solutions that they're offering are free-market solutions that, pretty much, equate with the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer," Johnson said.
California Democrat Barbara Lee, who was once on food stamps herself, said that "anyone who cares about eradicating or reducing poverty, providing opportunity for all, cannot be against food assistance and feeding hungry people. That's just outrageous." Lee also appeared Wednesday at an event marking the 50th anniversary of war on poverty with Lynda Johnson Robb, the daughter of the former president.
Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, was asked Wednesday morning whether he saw any contradiction in Southerland leading the news conference on poverty, given his controversial amendment that would reduce some food stamp benefits.
"Well, I think Mr. Southerland has a deep desire to deal with the issue of poverty," Boehner said.
"The one solution that we all know that works is a job," Boehner said. "And the fact that he has job requirements in his proposal for single, able-bodied recipients, frankly, is a step in the right direction."
Southerland repeatedly pointed toward his belief in work as the primary way to lift Americans out of poverty — and he painted federal assistance programs as a perverse incentive that had kept people in poverty and out of work.
The chairman of the RSC, Steve Scalise of Louisiana, said that 50 years and $15 trillion since the government took up the war on poverty, the continued poverty in America "shows how failed policies have actually led to more people being in poverty."
And Scalise said successes such as the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 have helped poor people.
"Those are the sorts of things that we should be highlighting," Scalise said. "Again, not just the big government solutions that have failed people in poverty and actually led to more people in poverty, but conservative solutions that empower people and put them out of poverty."
Specifically, Scalise pointed to the Keystone XL oil pipeline as a source of jobs that President Barack Obama has blocked.
"So I think it's a very stark contrast, where we're fighting to employ people out of poverty and what the Obama administration is doing to keep people in poverty," Scalise said.
House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., the leading tax policy writer in Congress, characterized a tax overhaul as a boon to the economy, and therefore, as a boon to the elimination of poverty.
"Actually, the formula for beating poverty is a job, it's really a strong economy, and it's the number of people working, not the number of checks being handed out," said Camp, who ranks just outside the 50 richest members of Congress with a net worth of at least $6.39 million.
Camp also addressed the recent debate over extending unemployment insurance and whether it was inconsistent for the conservative members to speak about poverty when they favor not reviving the lapsed benefits.
"I think we have to really look at the program," Camp said. "Certainly it needs reforms. It has not been paid for, so we have added over $200 billion to the deficit."
Lee characterized that thinking as deaf to the cries of poverty.
"If they really believe in what they say, they should immediately extend unemployment compensation benefits," Lee said, who also went on to challenge Republicans to raise the minimum wage.
"Their policies, and their strategies, and their agenda, really, speaks to the trickle-down — the Bush administration's economic policies," she said.
Jay Hunter contributed to this report.