Jeb Bush Has At Least One Thing Right on Poverty

03/04/2015 12:11 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2015

In a speech to the conservative Club for Growth this week, presidential hopeful and former Republican governor of Florida Jeb Bush espoused an idea about battling poverty that is, at its core, right. In fact, not only is it right, but if executed with great fidelity, it also could be both progressive and transformative. As a lifelong antipoverty advocate with "liberal leanings," I was shocked to find an ally in Bush for a belief that is, unfortunately, still radical.

It's this quote, offered in The Washington Post's coverage of Bush's speech, which rocked my world.

I believe, and I hope you do too, that poor people aren't dumb. Poor people need to be empowered with good education. But once they're empowered, they can make choices for themselves and their families.

I've been doing anti-poverty and social justice work for most of my career. After repeated encounters with what works and what doesn't, and after listening to and spending time both with people struggling with poverty and people finding their way out of it, I've come to a handful of core beliefs.

First, too much of our programming and investment is based on a fundamental perception that those who are struggling with poverty deserve to be. Whether the assumption is that those facing poverty are dumb, or make bad choices, suffer from lack of ambition, or, most perniciously, are inherently inferior, our policies and approaches are laced with the belief that the poverty is their fault and therefore they must be "fixed." This concept of "deficit"-based approaches is well documented.

Second, the vast majority of people want to rise. America's 20th Century prosperity was built on the assumption that the country's job was to provide opportunity and the people's job was to use it to build something more for themselves and their families. Leaders from President Obama to Marco Rubio share this view of our history. Last century, we were good at providing opportunity to white America -- think the GI Bill, for example. We have let much of that opportunity infrastructure crumble. If we build it again, as Bush appears to advocate, it must be for an America that looks substantially different than last time around, but that nevertheless is full of people who want the same things.

Third, rising involves personal choice and control. Because of our core, deficit-based beliefs about poverty, most of our programming and money -- when we're willing to give real money to people experiencing poverty, which is rarely -- is focused on the opposite, taking choice and control away from the individual. Go to this training. Spend your money this way. See this caseworker. Move here, or out of there. Stop seeing these people in your life, etc.

Let's stipulate that some percentage of our population could use some guidance, and probably some guardrails. That percentage is small, however, and far more evenly distributed across socioeconomic status, age, race, gender and the rest than people think; the need is not driven by poverty itself. As such, we should assume that those experiencing poverty need the same things to rise as everyone else -- resources, and the freedom to chart one's own path. Organizations and approaches that have embraced just such a philosophy, such as LIFT or the Family Independence Initiative, demonstrate repeatedly that it works.

Candidate Bush's quote from the Club for Growth speech demonstrates a similar set of beliefs. It also comes on the heels of a speech he made in Detroit in early February launching his Right to Rise PAC, a harbinger of one of the key elements in his candidacy. While the Right to Rise speech was loaded with traditional conservative bona fides, from states' rights, to small government, to private investment as the primary engine of prosperity, it, combined with Bush's poverty beliefs, suggests what could become a philosophy of direct investment in the traditionally poor and marginalized. That's still kind of fringe, Mr. Bush. Perhaps that's one reason why, the day after Club for Growth, Bush was booed at CPAC, another conservative festival of the mind, for being too moderate.

Kudos to Jeb Bush for believing in people who find themselves behind today's economic eight ball. It will be interesting to see if and how this belief manifests itself practically in a Bush policy platform. Once I recover from the shock of such a seemingly unlikely ally, I'm going to watch this space.