Sunday, January 10, 2016

Republicans, Big Tents and Poverty


Listening to Paul Ryan on Face the Nation, two things caught my attention. First, Ryan believes his party has a big tent; Two, he apparently thinks the answer to solving poverty is to get people out of what he referred to as "dead-end" jobs.

I'll address the latter point first. Let me just say up front, it's comforting to hear someone - anyone - in the Republican Party talk about poverty. These days, the word is akin to mass murderer among the base, which is astounding when you consider many of them are barely making ends meet. But the problem with Ryan's concern about poverty is that, like many Republicans, he still holds on to the notion that dead-end jobs are the cause of poverty. All we need is to provide people with the skills so they can leave those jobs and get the higher paying jobs and careers they need and are out there.

What Ryan and his party don't quite understand is that the economy of today isn't the economy of yesterday. Back in 1960, there were a lot more manufacturing jobs. G.M. led the way with 595,000 employees. Today's economy is dominated by service-oriented jobs, which pay considerably less. Walmart employs over 2.1 million people, many of whom make the minimum wage or just over. These so-called dead-end jobs have become the primary source of income for them and their families. The higher paying jobs that Ryan claims are out there don't grow on trees in any economy, especially this one.

It may be a hard pill for some conservatives to swallow, but not everyone's elevator goes up to the penthouse or even the third of fourth floors. Sometimes the highest that elevator goes is the first floor. Like it or not, these people aren't trapped in these jobs by choice; there simply isn't any other place for them to go. In fact, many of them need to take additional jobs just to make ends meet. Fifty years ago, a person making minimum wage could still afford to live; today that wage comes to $15,000 a year, $4 thousand below the poverty line for a family of four. Increasing it to $15 an hour would double the yearly income, allowing many families to get out of poverty and off government assistance. The American taxpayer is subsidizing companies like Walmart for underpaying their employees.

Of course when you mention raising the minimum wage to Republicans, their comeback is that higher wages lead to less jobs not more. The facts, however, don't support their concerns. Minnesota increased its minimum wage, and with it taxes on the wealthy, and their unemployment rate is 3.7 percent, half a point lower than Kansas and Wisconsin, which slashed taxes and did not raise their minimum wage. And California, which increased its minimum wage to $10 an hour as of January 1 of this year, has seen the largest job gains of any state in the country. So much for GOP talking points.

Now onto Ryan's big tent. While it might be true that Republicans have a big tent, a big tent doesn't necessarily mean a diverse tent. One of the reasons Ryan and the GOP have been talking about poverty of late is that they realize that their core demographic is shrinking as a percentage of the electorate. Just as any business would look to increase its marketshare, the Republican Party knows full well that if they don't start reaching out to other constituencies, their long-term prospects as a viable party are bleak.

Of course it would help if their presidential candidates didn't alienate just about every demographic in the country except their core one. Donald Trump may be thrilling his base with his outlandish comments and positions, but he is driving his party up the wall. No matter how many times he gets called out by his fellow Republicans, nothing seems to hurt him.  He has become the teflon candidate, much to the chagrin of the RNC.

So, the moral of the story is this: talk is cheap. Until and unless the Republican Party changes its tune and gives up the fairytale of supply-side economics, they can reach out all they want to the impoverished. Their efforts will amount to nothing. The working poor don't need lectures on work ethic and pulling themselves up by their own boot straps; they need hope. And right now, that's something Paul Ryan can't offer, no matter how hard he tries.

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