01/22/2014 06:55 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2014

How Do We Evaluate Republicans' Discovery of Poverty?


Republicans are finally talking about poverty. It's about time, as poverty affects 16% of people in the U.S. and 22% of children. For so long, the GOP has, at best, ignored and, at worst, disdained the poor. But now, on the 50th anniversary of President Johnson's War on Poverty, there is dialogue.

Why now?

It most likely has some (or all) to do with 2016. Not surprisingly, the stars of the GOP and potential 2016 contenders, like Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan, are leading the poverty charge. There's a fear among Republicans that, in order to win in 2014 and 2016, they need to close the so-called 'empathy gap' among voters who think Democratic candidates are more caring and less--well--cruel. In other words, maybe this recent move isn't meant to attack poverty, but to win middle-class white voters who care about things like empathy.

Maybe it was inspired by the new pope's valiant effort to put the spotlight on worldwide poverty instead of worldwide wealth accumulation. Or maybe this is just the familiar Republican tactic of talking about an issue (like health care reform or student loans) in order to convince the voting public they care, but lacking any real, viable plans to change the status quo.

Or maybe it's a genuine effort by a party that has long rejected the plight of the bottom 20%. Maybe it's an encouraging sign of an era of conservative icons who want solutions.

How should we judge policy proposals by a major political party?

Sometimes Democrats or Republicans take on new issues in an attempt to make the world a better place and/or win elections. And sometimes these politicians are not genuine--shocker, I know. So, how do we judge Republicans' recent outpouring of support for the poor?

Should they be praised for bringing up the issue at all, regardless of their proposals' shortcomings? Does paying lip service to an issue mean anything if a party's track record is backwards or they've long been silent about the issue? Should the GOP be lambasted if their proposals don't address the root causes of poverty or are unlikely to become law?

Judging their track record

GOP-controlled states are blocking a hugely discounted Medicaid expansion, leaving millions without health insurance. Republicans in Congress are blocking an extension of unemployment benefits and rolling back food stamps, a program that offers just $1.40 per meal, hardly the steak dinner that some in the GOP like to imagine. And that's just GOP damage in the last month; the history of the GOP and the poor is one of demonization, humiliation, and persecution.

Judging their rhetoric

Highlighting the plight of the poor is a noble goal and a noble undertaking. The country needs to be reminded just how hard some of our neighbors have it. But for politicians, talk is cheap, and in 2014, some 16 million children languish in poverty in the wealthiest country in the world. What little we have of the Republican's proposals are vague and unlikely even to get a vote in Congress, let alone pass with Democrat or Republican support.

Judging their proposals

Of the recent GOP poverty talk, few realistic and passable policy proposals have been presented. Thus, it seems largely an exercise in messaging and not an effort to improve the lot of the country's poor. Numerous articles have taken the Republicans' (lack of) specific policy proposals to task, offering sobering analyses of the real Republican agenda's effect on the poor.

Judging the GOP

The big reveal, of course, is that there is no one way to judge a major party's adoption of an issue. You have to look for sincerity, for genuine dedication, for authority, and for concrete steps towards real change. And by nearly every metric, the GOP is failing in its newfound call to help the poor.

Where do we go from here?

So now's our moment, when Republicans are looking to bail out their sinking laissez-faire ship, offering platitudes about the virtue of private enterprise and the viciousness of government assistance, to hold them accountable and refuse to praise them for their artificial, rhetorical support for America's poor.

How? By supporting the GOP only when they support policy that is proven. Like subsidizing childcare programs so parents can work, extending unemployment benefits, increasing food stamps, passing the FAMILY Act to provide guaranteed paid family leave, and fully funding these programs long term. We can also repeal voter-ID laws that disproportionately affect the poor and do nothing to protect the franchise for the rest of us.

If we can wait for the GOP to follow through on initiatives to help the poor by working with the Democrats before we give them any electoral or financial reward, it will teach Republicans and Democrats alike that a few high-profile, well-coordinated, and media-saturated speeches about an issue are not nearly enough. To earn votes and campaign contributions, politicians need to take these legislative actions seriously and focus on doing something, instead of just saying something.