WASHINGTON — Sen. Marco Rubio marked the 50th anniversary of the "war on poverty" by declaring it a failure, and proposed redirecting federal funding to states in a speech that underscored growing GOP concerns about appealing to a broader electorate.
"These economic, social, cultural and educational causes of opportunity inequality, they are complex," Rubio said Wednesday. "And they will not be solved by continuing with the same stale Washington ideas."
The speech effectively claimed a spot in a debate that a number of young Republicans, including Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, have waded into as the GOP tries to compete with Democrats over what could become a dominant issue in the 2014 midterm elections and likely the next presidential race.
Ryan will emphasize his own poverty ideas in a national TV interview today, and Paul has made overtures to minorities.
"If you look at the demographics of the country, Republicans have a vested interest in getting more of these folks into the middle class because that helps them get votes," said John Feehery, a Republican strategist. "What the party has been missing is some creative ideas."
He argued the GOP in recent years has hewed too close to the tea party mantra of slashing government at any cost. Rubio, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, layered on criticism of the Washington approach but sidestepped questions of cutting safety net programs, such as food stamps, as some Republicans have sought to do.
He talked about how most of the income gains in recent decades have gone to the ultra wealthy. "These are indeed startling figures, and they deserve attention," he said even as he said focus should be put on income "mobility."
Democrats are seizing on the attention to income issues to push an increase in the minimum wage and to extend unemployment insurance that expired for 1.3 million people in late December. They used Wednesday to celebrate President Lyndon B. Johnson's war on poverty, saying it had prevented millions of people from going under, and to urge more government intervention to address the nearly 50 million Americans who remain poor.
"It is almost unfathomable that Rubio is giving a speech on poverty just a day after voting against unemployment benefits. But his refusal to help the unemployed is actually emblematic of conservatives' empty rhetoric on poverty," Eddie Vale of the Democratic Super PAC American Bridge told reporters before Rubio speech.
Rubio on Tuesday joined most Republicans in a procedural vote against a three-month jobless benefit extension affecting 1.3 million people; he says he supports the aid but only if the $6.4 billion cost is offset by budget cuts.
In his speech Wednesday, he scoffed at plans to raise the minimum wage as a small approach to a systemic problem.
"Raising the minimum wage may poll well, but having a job that pays $10 an hour is not the American Dream," Rubio said.
At the same time, some estimates show raising the minimum wage to $10.10 would lift about 5 million people out of poverty. Florida Democrats on Wednesday introduced legislation to bring the state level to that amount.
Rubio, still trying to overcome the damage he suffered among conservatives for his role in immigration reform, called for moving federal money into a "flex fund" that states could use in more innovative ways, in the way states reformed welfare programs in the 1990s. But Rubio did not provide detail, including what federal programs he would include, saying the idea was under development. Nor did his assessment of the war on poverty mention Medicare, which has sharply reduced poverty among the elderly.
Some early critics questioned how states — about two dozen of which have rejected a Medicaid expansion — would be more efficient.
Rubio's other main proposal is an alternative to raising the minimum wage. He would replace the earned income tax credit with a "federal wage enhancement" for low-paying jobs. He reasoned that would give people an incentive to remain working and not collect unemployment and other federal safety net benefits.
Republicans have become increasingly worried about their national prospects amid changing demographics and perceptions that Democrats care more about the middle class and poor. Mitt Romney's 2012 Republican presidential bid solidified some of that with his comments, made at a fundraiser in Florida, that 47 percent of Americans are dependent on the government.
Rubio, who was among Romney's potential vice presidential choices, and Ryan, who got the nod, quickly gave speeches that distanced themselves from those remarks. But neither has translated that into legislative action.
For Rubio, the focus on economic mobility allows him to tap into his personal story, the son of working-class immigrants.
"For me, this issue is deeply personal," he said. "I am but a generation removed from poverty and despair. Where would I be today if there had never been an America? What kind of lives or future would my children have if this was not a land of opportunity?"
Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected]