I have spent three decades in and around the federal government. But I have never seen so many Republicans discussing ways to reduce poverty and promote opportunity as I did on Saturday. I’m speaking, of course, about the Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity in Columbia, South Carolina, which was attended by over 1,000 people and a bevy of reporters.
All the presidential candidates were invited. None of the Democrats accepted the invitation; Donald Trump and Ted Cruz also turned it down; Carly Fiorina accepted but had trouble with transportation and couldn’t come. Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich, and Marco Rubio participated in the event which was moderated by U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and U.S. Senator Tim Scott (R-S.C.).
Here are three points I took away from the proceedings.
1. Conservatives are getting serious about poverty and opportunity
Jack Kemp, a Republican member of Congress in the 1970s and 1980s, whose son Jimmy organized the Forum, stood out as a rare Republican urging fellow conservatives to take an interest in helping the poor. Paul Ryan, a Kemp acolyte who is now Speaker of the House, has been focusing on the poor for at least the past three years and has spent a great deal of time in poor communities talking with and listening to community leaders. Similarly, Arthur Brooks, the head of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, is a leading voice among conservative thinkers in how to apply conservative principles to revive the American Dream. Both Ryan and Brooks played leading roles in the Columbia event. That six Republican presidential candidates attended and that Ryan and Scott, plus South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, participated in the Forum demonstrates a growing commitment among Republican politicians to focus attention on how conservatives would support policies and programs to help poor kids get ahead.
2. But it will take the whole Party, not a few leaders
But a few isolated figures—however prominent—do not a movement make. If Republicans are serious about applying conservative principles to promoting opportunity, they need a host of new leaders who have a commitment to promoting opportunity, knowledge about the nature and extent of the problems the poor face, and well-developed ideas about policies and programs that could be effective in promoting opportunity. Republicans participating in the Kemp Forum met the triple test of i) understanding how conservative principles can be applied to promoting opportunity ii) having specific ideas about policies and programs that can be employed to promote opportunity, and iii) being able to express their ideas and proposals clearly and defend them. Now the question is whether the rest of the Republican Party will follow their lead.
3. Unity on the importance of education, family, work
The Republican candidates showed a remarkable degree of agreement on the principles and policies that should be at the heart of a conservative strategy for fighting poverty and promoting opportunity. The role of personal responsibility was seen as the foundation on which successful programs can be built. More specifically, the candidates seemed to agree that the three most important areas in which personal responsibility should be applied are education, family life, and work. The message that sounded clearest among the candidates was that the poor needed more education and training, that they needed support from their families (including both parents), and that above all they must increase their work rates. To sophisticated thinkers and pundits, these three principles often come across as platitudes, but they have the advantage of being traditional American values and of receiving considerable support from research.
Of course, principles without policies and programs cannot solve social problems. But here again, there was a lot of agreement among the candidates. Key proposals included:
- Greater control over welfare programs and funding by states;
- Greater accountability placed on states for results;
- More school choice for parents;
- Reduced disincentives for work in welfare programs;
- More apprenticeship programs;
- More early childhood programs;
- Laws changed to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison and drug treatment programs for people in and leaving prison; and
- Wage supplements for low-wage workers, especially through tax credits.
There are political and conceptual issues to be addressed with all of these policies. Democrats will agree with some, but not all, especially in an election season. But overall, it is hard to resist the conclusion that a true commitment to reducing poverty and increasing economic opportunity from both parties would be an important step in solving one of the nation’s leading problems.
Note: The writer is a former Republican staffer with the House Committee on Ways and Means and a former senior advisor for welfare policy to President George W. Bush.