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Poverty, Social Mobility, and the Party of Lincoln

Yesterday Senator Marco Rubio delivered a major speech on poverty and social mobility. It’s impressive for several reasons.

While not ignoring the issue of income inequality, he made what I think is the correct and important point: Lack of social mobility, not income inequality, is what we should focus on. And the speech was intellectually impressive in part because it was intellectually honest. Senator Rubio explained with some sophistication the reasons for what he calls “opportunity inequality”–including long-term economic, social, cultural, and educational causes. This speech was not politically partisan or shallow; it admitted the causes of poverty and decreasing social mobility are complex. (Many European countries now have as much social mobility as, and more opportunity than, the United States; and today a child’s future depends on parental income more in America than it does in Canada and Europe.) Senator Rubio’s address deepened the public’s understanding of these issues, and that’s all to the good.

On the policy side of things, Senator Rubio’s proposals on the Flex Fund (which would consolidate many anti-poverty programs that in turn would be distributed to the states to enact their own anti-poverty agenda) and transforming the Earned Income Tax Credit into a real wage subsidy are promising steps, with more, I gather, to follow.

What Mr. Rubio unveiled yesterday merits support on federalism and subsidiary grounds, in terms of how we should think about the working poor versus those who are unable to work, because it incentivizes work and creates incentives to avoid unemployment programs, and because it makes upward mobility more, not less, likely. (For a more detailed and illuminating discussion of the merits of Rubio’s proposals, see here and here.)

As for politics: This kind of effort can only help the Republican Party, which has been too disengaged and morally indifferent to the problems facing the poor for too long. It has not offered a compelling agenda that addresses the economic and structural problems that face (especially) those living in the shadows of society. Whether or not to support or oppose Senator Rubio’s proposals should hinge on the substantive merits. But of course you can’t take the politics out of politics, and so as a purely political matter, focusing on the plight of the poor would certainly make middle-class voters, and especially middle-class women, more amenable to the GOP.

I’ve written before that social mobility is the central moral promise of American economic life; the hallmark of our system is the potential for advancement and greater prosperity rooted in merit and hard work rather than in the circumstances of one’s birth. This was the key insight of Lincoln, who noted that “the progress by which the poor, honest, industrious and resolute man raises himself, that he may work on his own account and hire somebody else … is the great principle for which this government was really formed.”

It’s time that the Party of Lincoln more fully embrace the philosophy of Lincoln. That is, I think, what Marco Rubio (and congressional Republicans, like Representatives Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan and Senator Mike Lee) are doing. More Republicans should follow their lead.