WASHINGTON — Sen. Tim Scott, the only Republican African American member of Congress, challenged conservatives and liberals alike Wednesday to use new tactics to help poor Americans, in an impassioned appeal that swung from offering his personal story to a harsh political attack on the nation’s first black president.
Scott’s speech on the Senate floor, coupled with his introduction of anti-poverty legislation, joined recent efforts by other prominent Republicans to counter President Barack Obama’s recent focus on the growing wealth gap and to blunt his portrayals of their party as beholden to the rich.
Scott, viewed by his party as a rising star, hit hard at both sides of the political spectrum. He declared the government’s 50-year War on Poverty a failure and said that Obamacare was helping to impoverish people.
But he also criticized the frequent claim by his fellow conservatives that many of the unemployed don’t really want to find jobs.
“People want to work,” Scott said. “They want to get ahead. And they still want a better life for their children and grandchildren.”
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley in 2012 named Scott, then a member of the House, to replace former Sen. Jim DeMint, who had stepped down.
His anti-poverty bills would consolidate dozens of job-training programs and divert some public education funds to provide more school choices for disabled and special-needs children. As part of his “Opportunity Agenda,” he promised to push subsequent measures to reform welfare and simplify the tax code.
Scott told his own story of growing up poor in Charleston, S.C., as the son of a single mom and grandson of an illiterate grandfather who had to drop out of school and start picking cotton to help support his family.
“But Granddaddy has now lived long enough to see a grandson elected to Congress and another grandson earn the rank of command sergeant major in the United States Army,” he said.
The South Carolinian said his story serves as an example of how a family can move from failure to success within two generations.
“That is the power of America,” he said. “That is the power of opportunity.”
Scott said that since joining the Senate a year ago, he’s bagged groceries, waited on tables, swept floors, ridden public buses and slept at a homeless shelter in an attempt to talk with “everyday Americans” while visiting all of his state’s 46 counties.
His legislative and rhetorical initiative is part of a broader Republican effort to address the country’s mounting income inequalities and to soften the party’s image of callousness toward struggling Americans.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican and possible 2016 White House candidate, and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, in recent days have delivered major addresses offering their own proposals on how to ease persistent poverty. More than one in six Americans live beneath the government’s official poverty level, according to the Census Bureau.
“Are we trying the same tactics and getting same results?” Scott asked in his speech. “It’s been said that insanity is doing the same things the same ways and hoping for different results. After a 50-year War on Poverty, the poverty rates are increasing. Were this a military conflict, we would have changed our strategy decades ago.”
Democratic President Lyndon Johnson announced the War on Poverty in 1964, laying the framework for his Great Society legislative agenda to help the poor. A Democratic-controlled Congress subsequently passed measures to create the Office of Economic Opportunity and expand the government’s role in education, health care and other areas to aid low income Americans.
The poverty rate was 19 percent in 1964 and fell to 15 percent in 2012, the last year for which Census Bureau figures are available, according to the Pew Research Center.
The new Republican campaign to help poor Americans comes as GOP congressional leaders are blocking Democratic-led attempts to extend unemployment benefits to the 1.3 million people who’ve been without jobs for at least six months. Some Republicans lawmakers and conservative commentators say such benefits discourage some of the long-termed unemployed from actively seeking jobs.
The GOP initiative also comes six weeks after Obama delivered an address in which he said the growing divide between rich and poor is threatening the American dream, calling it “the defining challenge of our time.”
At one point in his own speech, Scott appeared to offer a firm rebuttal to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s claim in the 2012 presidential campaign that almost half of all Americans “believe the government has a responsibility to care for them.”
“These folks are not asking for a handout,” Scott said of the South Carolinians he’s met who are in difficult circumstances. “They’re asking for a hand up; everyday Americans working hard, struggling, looking for a way to change their destiny.”
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @jamesmartinrose