Republican presidential candidates pitched their anti-poverty ideas during a forum in Columbia on Saturday, although the two current frontrunners Donald Trump and US Sen. Ted Cruz were not present.
The plans from the six candidates emphasized the private market and state governments as the source for solutions, rather than the federal government. The Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity was organized by the Jack Kemp Foundation, a nonprofit group that follows late GOP US Sen. and vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp’s emphasis on housing and escaping poverty, and Opportunity Lives
Two of those GOP candidates spoke briefly about their own lives living in low-income households. “As a kid growing up in poverty, I hated poverty,” said Ben Carson, whose rise from an inner-city Detroit neighborhood to head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital was the subject of a 2009 film. “Some people hate rats. Some people hate roaches. I hated poverty. I was absolutely certain I was born into the wrong family.”
Carson said the faith community needs to have a more active role in lifting their neighbors out of poverty. He also suggested allowing American companies to repatriate their foreign profits back to the US tax-free for a temporary time — so long as 10 percent is dedicated to high-poverty “Enterprise Zones.”
Other candidates, particularly the current and former GOP governors, called for state and local governments to receive more flexibility in how they handle federal Medicaid and welfare money.
“We treat the symptoms of poverty. We treat the pain of poverty, but we do not cure poverty in America today with these federal programs,” Florida US Sen. Marco Rubio said. “The goal is to ensure that those funds are being given to those entities at the state and local level that will cure poverty by empowering people to turn their lives around.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said he believes federal agencies should be more inclined to give block grants to states rather than set specific criteria for how funds should be used. “They swing a meat ax rather than a scalpel on these issues,” he said. “We (as governors) have the ability to really get in there and be able to pick and choose the right type of tools to use depending upon the challenge and the city.”
Christie also said the law enforcement system needs to change how it deals with substance abuse, so that those who have a drug addiction are rehabilitated and returned to work rather than sent to prison.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich agreed, and mentioned Ohio’s efforts to “ban the box,” that public employers ask potential jobseekers to check if they have a previous felony conviction. “We’ll find out if you were a felon, but it would be the second or third interview, when you could explain exactly where you were,” he told the audience. “And… if you had, in fact, committed a crime but have been rehabilitated, we give you a way back so you can get a job in a lot of these professions where you’re currently not permitted to get one.”
The forum provided an opportunity for GOP candidates to outline some of their domestic policies in a race driven largely by Mideast foreign policy or immigration to this point. Several remarked it is an area where the Republican Party needs to improve its messaging to convert new voters in future elections.
“People are stuck in poverty and the notion of some that somehow they want to be there is just ridiculous. It is totally wrong,” former Florida governor Jeb Bush said. “In fact, we’ll never win elections if we send any kind of signal like that. We’ll just become a minority party.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who also grew up in a working class family, said Republicans cannot stereotype impoverished Americans. “I find it sometimes amazing when people talk about the poor as if people are poor because they want to be,” he said. “I’ve often said that if you grew up poor, I guarantee you didn’t want to grow up that way.”
The event was moderated by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and South Carolina US Sen. Tim Scott. Scott himself has frequently talked about growing up poor in Goose Creek.
Saturday’s session with Rubio and Kasich was interrupted several times by hecklers who accused Rubio of wanting to deport their families. The panelists mostly ignored the protesters, who were escorted out by security at Columbia Convention Center each time they stood up to chant. However, a clearly annoyed Sen. Rubio eventually quipped “We’re going to enforce our immigration laws, guys,” to cheers from the audience.
After a fourth such interruption, Kasich insisted, “If there are any more protestors out here, I think we got the point. If you keep disrupting, you’re just going to turn everybody against you.”
“Do it when Kasich speaks,” Rubio joked. The candidates were never asked any immigration-related questions during the forum.
Trump and Cruz did not attend Saturday’s event. Neither did Kentucky US Sen. Rand Paul, former Pennsylvania US Sen. Rick Santorum or former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina had planned to attend, but was not able to make it due to transportation issues, according to her campaign.