THE BLOG
12/07/2012 02:55 pm ET | Updated Feb 06, 2013

God Bless 'Em for Talking about Poverty

God bless Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan.

I'm pretty sure I'm going to lose my right to carry some card I'm supposed to be carrying by saying that, but I'm sticking to it. And I'll tell you exactly why. Because they talked about poverty.

In fact, they didn't just talk about it. They exhorted us about it. They didn't just exhort us; they re-framed the question of poverty, and the image of the poor and working poor themselves.

In his column today about a change in the Republican Party, New York Times columnist David Brooks gave readers a glimpse into an evening of speeches he attended at the Jack Kemp Foundation's Leadership Awards ceremony this week. Senator Rubio won the award, and Brooks treated us to a long quote from his speech.

"As he was telling this story, Rubio motioned to some of the service staff at the Kemp dinner. They stopped to listen to him. 'It all starts with our people,' Rubio continued. 'In the kitchens of our hotels. In the landscaping crews that work in our neighborhoods. In the late-night janitorial shifts that clean our offices. There you will find the dreams America was built on. There you will find the promise of tomorrow. Their journey is our nation's destiny. And if they can give their children what our parents gave us, the 21st-century America will be the single greatest nation that man has ever known.'"

Rep. Paul Ryan spoke that night as well. Here's what Brooks shared with us from his speech.

"The obligations to combat poverty, Ryan said, are beyond dispute. 'The real debate is how best we can meet them. It's whether they are better met by private groups or by government -- by voluntary action or by government action. The truth is, there has to be a balance. Government must act for the common good, while leaving private groups free to do the work that only they can do.'"

This is a fantastic one-two call to action on the question of poverty today. First, Senator Rubio reframed those who are the working poor as engines of greatness for the United States. He recognizes that they represent the future of our workforce, the parents of the children in our schools, the hungry and striving who are working and will work their fingers to the bone to make this country better and improve opportunity for all of us.

He's right. They will. They did throughout the 20th century, and they remain an engine for all of us today. It was incredibly refreshing to hear that truth told, rather than the awful rhetoric, laced with fear of immigrants and subtle racism, that seems to have dominated much of our political discourse about the poor and working poor in 2012 -- when they appeared in the discourse at all.

There is another important truth underlying what Senator Rubio said. In reflecting on Rubio's speech, Brooks noted, "He spoke with passion about those longing to rise." We all rise together. When the working poor get the opportunity to rise, it strengthens the economy and the country for all of us. They want what people who aren't poor want, too -- to do for themselves and their families what they want to do for themselves and their families. It's self-determination at its most basic. And our country is built and thrives on the importance of self-determination.

Then came Rep. Ryan and his discussion about the social contract and the poor. To begin, it is thrilling to see an acknowledgement that there is a social contract with the poor. It's been multiple election cycles since we have seriously discussed the relationship between the people in general and the people who are experiencing poverty in terms other than those focused on reducing the burden the poor place upon us. I am grateful to see a social contract discussion front and center.

Then, Rep. Ryan acknowledged something else very important -- that there is a legitimate role for government to play and for private voluntary efforts to play in fulfilling that social contract. I disagree with Rep. Ryan on where that division should be. Many reasonable people disagree with each other on that question.

Like some sap who cries at a touching moment in a Pampers commercial, though, I actually teared up when I read, "Government must act for the common good, while leaving private groups free to do the work only they can do." Yes, Rep. Ryan. Yes. And thank you for saying it. If we can find common ground there, we can, indeed, have a reasonable conversation about where to draw the lines.

It's time for that conversation, and so much more, about how we are going to address the avalanche-style tumble of families in America into the bottom two quintiles of the socioeconomic ladder.

Finally, people are saying it. People want to rise. When they do, we all rise. Being poor is not a crime, or evidence of being broken. It's an economic condition and our social contract calls us to address it. We can do so by a mix of public and private means. But we absolutely must do so.

God bless 'em.