Republicans talk poverty - for a day

Jeb Bush, Ben Carson and Chris Christie attend the Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity. Image copyright AP

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has a warning for Republican presidential candidates. If they don't address the issue of persistent US poverty, they'll never find long-term political success.

"You can't reignite the American idea - economic growth, prosperity, security - if you're letting people slip through the cracks," he said.

Economically disadvantaged voters have traditionally supported Democrats, but Mr Ryan said his party should not concede ground to the liberals.

"I think we owe people an alternative, and I think we have better ideas with principles that have better solutions," he said. "And we need to talk about those solutions."

Mr Ryan's remarks came at the conclusion of a presidential forum on poverty in Columbia, South Carolina, in which Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential running mate and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott questioned six Republican candidates about their plans to help the have-nots in US society.

Despite more than 46 million Americans currently living below the poverty line, it's a topic that has been largely ignored on the Republican campaign trail, as candidates have focused on issues like national security, immigration and the middle class - and front-runner Donald Trump perpetually dominates the news cycle.

Although Mr Trump was absent from the event - he held a rally in nearby Stone Hill the previous night but was in Nevada on Saturday - the Republicans who did attend were nearly unanimous in their belief that the 50-year-old war on poverty, begun by Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, has been a failure.

Power to the states

Many of the candidates at the forum called for the federal government to cede responsibility for addressing poverty to the states.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush elaborated on his recently announced plan to turn over all federal food stamp, housing assistance and family assistance dollars to state governments in the form of block grants.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Paul Ryan says Republicans must provide new solutions to address persistent US poverty

"Compassion is not measured by how much money you spend through Washington, through a big administrative bureaucracy," he said. "The only way we're going to become a more just society is acting from the bottom up."

The federal government wants to decide "who gets what", New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said. "It's not about who cares more or who doesn't."

"Our view is, we just want it to be successful," he continued. "I want great ideas and work ethic to be rewarded in this country again, not people in Washington picking winners and losers."

Tax reform

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who sat on the first panel along with Mr Bush and Mr Christie, took issue with calls to give federal dollars to the states, contending that government even at that level is inefficient.

"I believe that the real answer to poverty is not government, but the private sector," he said. He suggested enacting a temporary suspension of corporate taxes to allow US businesses to repatriate overseas financial holdings, then requiring them to invest 10% of that cash into "enterprise zones" or "create jobs for people who are unemployed or on welfare".

Mr Bush and Mr Christie called for an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which provides payments in the form of tax refunds to the working poor - a proposal Mr Carson derided as "manipulation of the income tax system".

The purpose of income taxes should be to finance the government, he said, and not to "affect people's behaviour".

Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, the sole participant in the second panel thanks to a missed flight by Carly Fiorina, also viewed tax reform as a means of combating poverty. He pushed his plan for replacing income tax with a national consumption tax that includes credits for the poor.

School choice

Public education was another target of criticism, as candidate after candidate viewed school reform - particularly "school choice" programmes that allow parents to use tax dollars to send their children to private schools - as a pathway out of poverty.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Governor Chris Christie has repeatedly battled with teachers unions in New Jersey

"The one group of people who can't choose where their children go to school is poor people," said Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who participated in the third panel with Ohio Governor John Kasich.

He also called for changes in how colleges receive government accreditation, which would allow the certification of more higher education institutions, including those that grant college degrees based on accumulated life experience.

"We are a country that has a retirement system designed in the '30s, a higher education system designed in the '50s, poverty programmes designed in the '60s, energy policies from the '70s, and nothing looks like it did five years ago," Mr Rubio said. "We have an outmoded, outdated government."

Mr Carson had strong opinions on education, as well, noting that children taught by their parents at home were better educated than public school students. Mr Christie singled out teachers unions, a favourite foil of his in New Jersey, for particular opprobrium.

Criminal justice

Several of the Republican presidential hopefuls also identified the criminal justice system as contributing to long-term poverty in the US - a view that even a few years ago would have been anathema to a party that has relied on tough law-and-order campaign rhetoric since the days of President Richard Nixon.

Mr Christie said the government has to treat nonviolent drug offences as a medical problem and not a crime.

"We need to get some of the people who are addicts out of those jail cells," he said.

Image copyright AP
Image caption John Kasich has enacted sentencing reform as governor of Ohio

Mr Kasich suggested giving judges more discretion in sentencing and prohibiting employers from asking about criminal records prior to job interviews. Mr Huckabee, who backed sentencing reform when he was governor of Arkansas, agreed.

"We lock up a lot of people that we're mad at rather than the ones we're really afraid of," Mr Huckabee said. "And economically, it's a disaster."

Battle for the middle

A cursory look at the polls in early voting states reveals a stark reality for the four top candidates attending the poverty summit.

Mr Trump and firebrand conservative Senator Ted Cruz - who declined an invitation to the forum - are running away with the race in Iowa. Mr Trump is also dominating New Hampshire, but there's a growing battle between Mr Kasich, Mr Christie, Mr Bush and Mr Rubio for second place.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Donald Trump didn't attend the poverty summit, but he was in South Carolina the previous night

If one of those candidates has a strong showing there, he could gain the full support of moderate Republicans and a party establishment that fears Mr Trump's unpredictability and Mr Cruz's ideological bombast.

Both eschew the kind of party-broadening rhetoric and policies that Speaker Ryan sees helping to create a "vibrant, inclusive, inspiring, exciting majoritarian Republican Party".

And so those who stood with Mr Ryan on Saturday morning in Columbia spoke of the importance of helping the poor, reaching out to new voters and, as Mr Christie put it, "campaigning in places where we're not comfortable". They made their pitch, in effect, as the anti-Trump, and then they went back to the campaign trail.

In a few days they'll all return to South Carolina for the next Republican debate where, if the past is any guide, the issues of poverty and the working poor will barely be mentioned.

More on this story