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Nikki Johnson-Huston, Esq. Headshot

The Republicans' Poverty Problem

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With the 2014 midterm elections coming up later this year and the eagerly hyped possible 2016 presidential contest between Hillary Clinton and the banged up -- but still formidable -- governor of New Jersey Chris Christie, many of us are trying to decide the future direction of our great country after several years of economic difficulties for many of our citizens. The world of the political is catching up with the real life concerns of Main Street in asking the very important questions related to the new economic reality. Where are all the good jobs? Will we have the same quality of life that we had before 2008? Does the American Dream still exist for the vast majority of Americans? Who will help us when times get tough?

These are very real questions and people are expecting their elected officials to have some answers. These are questions that are being asked of leaders in both political parties, but after the last presidential campaign became a referendum about Mitt Romney's wealth and his 47 percent comment rather than policy, conservatives are in the hot seat on this issue. Many in the Republican Party are being forced to discuss issues like income inequality, the social safety net cuts, a living wage for the working poor, support for the long-term unemployed and the new economic reality that we have 90 million individuals over the age of 16 who are not working. The spotlight is especially bright on Republicans because in recent years they have been unable, or unwilling, to effectively articulate how conservative values can help people move out of poverty.

Times are tough for so many people and many of them have lost hope in the future for themselves and their children. The issues of poverty and providing pathways to success are critically important and identifying and implementing the right solutions will take people of good will on both sides of the aisle. Although I consider myself a "Common-Sense Liberal" I see the narrative that all Republicans only care about the rich to be a distraction and not an accurate reflection of the beliefs of many of my conservative friends. Even for some of those Republicans that only seem comfortable speaking on issues affecting those in top tax brackets, I don't believe that they are coming from a bad place but are disconnected from certain realties that the average person is now dealing with. While it is their responsibility as leaders to address this disconnect or face being voted out of office, I honestly believe that they want to see everyone succeed.

If the reality is that both parties want people to succeed, then why have they been unable to come up with solutions to help people find success in America? In an effort to answer this question, I hear Republicans focus on what they consider the positives of living in a free society which provides the ability to succeed, while also creating the possibility of failure. Unfortunately this can often times be described as a culture of winners and losers or makers and takers. These descriptions of our fellow citizens make me cringe and I would advise my Republican friends to leave these terms alone because they divide instead of uniting us in finding solutions.

With this freedom narrative they also believe that success will follow from hard work and creativity. That everyone has an equal chance in this country regardless of where you come from and the color of your skin. I still believe that this is a country where anything is possible but the ladder for success seems steeper than when I was climbing it just a few years ago. For many the idea of unlimited opportunity is a wildly optimistic view of the country and does not reflect the reality that many people are now facing. The truth is that many people do not have the education, skills and experience to make a comfortable life for them and their children, no matter how hard they work. This has always been a troubling reality of our country, but what is different now is that many of the "new poor" are coming from the suburbs and at one time had a middle class life. Their new reality is less hopeful: needing 99 weeks of unemployment, houses in foreclosure, their children can't afford to pay for college without tens of thousands of dollars in student loans and there is a lack of available employment.

We as a country have broken faith with our middle class. The people who did the "right things" and now feel like they have nothing to show for it. That is where the real problem is coming from for the Republicans. Their narrative that all in poverty are uneducated and lazy is a fallacy that has undermined the conservative brand with those struggling middle-class Americans. Let's be honest they weren't going to win the votes of the urban poor or their educated elite hipster counterparts, but the rural working-class worker (Reagan Democrat) or suburban voters who are now the fastest growing population of those living in poverty were previously very likely Republican voters. The lives of these voters have changed and the Republicans need to change their message to deal with this new reality.