Republicans’ Poverty Plan a Perfect Pitch to Young Voters

Young adults have been caricaturized as the “me, me, me generation.” We, apparently, are a group who suffers from higher levels of narcissistic personality disorder, believes we always deserve a promotion, are developmentally stunted, and are quite simply, lazy.

That characterization is pure fiction according to our research. In 2013 we found that young Americans want to be known as intelligent, caring and hardworking. In fact, we’ve found that one of the most important questions millennials ask in deciding if something is right or wrong or worth supporting or opposing is whether it provides care for others.

More specifically, polling and focus groups we conducted earlier this year showed that “addressing poverty” was the fifth most important issue when choosing a candidate, that “cares about making it easier to move up out of poverty” was the fifth most desired attribute when young adults were asked to build a hypothetical party platform, and that “kind to people of all walks of life” is the most important attribute when asked to “build” an ideal candidate.

“The common theme,” we wrote, is that “Millennials want leaders who care. They are more concerned with the ability to be kind to, empathize with and to fight for others than on particular credentials or experiences.”

Sadly, those are not attributes often attributed to the GOP, which represents a failure that some are actively working hard to address. It begins by explaining what we’re for, not just what we’re against. Namely, we’re for empowering individuals and clearing away any obstacles that get in the way of that journey of self-fulfillment.

“This is the difference: We do not believe we should be governed by our betters—that elites in Washington should make all the big decisions—that they should pick winners and losers—that’s a recipe for a closed economy—for cronyism,” House Speaker Paul Ryan recently told a group of young adults. “We want an open economy where there’s equal opportunity for all, where more people can participate and rise by their talents, where the individual can put their ideas and aspirations to the test.”

In practice that can look like anything from paving the way for would-be entrepreneurs to crowdsource their idea, to creating more dynamic choices for higher education in order to better meet students’ varied needs, and to fighting poverty by empowering local organizations who know their communities best.

Poverty has proven to be an especially persistent and pernicious issue. Last week marked the 20th anniversary of the landmark welfare reform bill (the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act), a singular achievement in bipartisan policymaking.

The bill, which replaced abuse-laden cash welfare system with a work-incentivizing Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, was enacted by a Republican Congress led by Newt Gingrich and by Democratic President Bill Clinton. That type of reach-across-the-aisle progress happens far too infrequently in today’s polarized politics. For instance, when Speaker Ryan unveiled the House Republicans’ anti-poverty agenda, which included left-leaning ideas like expanded job training alongside right-leaning ideas like cutting loopholes states use to inflate the number of people meeting work requirements, it was met with predictable backlash by Democrats. Rather than attempt to identify a path forward, or even offer up their own plan, they made the political decision to simply label the plan as an attack on the poor.

That’s a disappointing regression from President Clinton’s leadership. It reminds me of a speech he gave at the tenth anniversary of the signing of welfare reform:

“I was at a Governor’s meeting when we were talking about reforming the welfare system, and I brought a woman from Arkansas there, and I asked her what the best thing about being off welfare was. And she said, “When my boy goes to school and they say, ‘What does your mama do for a living,’ he can give an answer.” He can give an answer.

Now, I have kept in touch with that woman for 10 years, and she introduced me the day I signed the welfare reform bill. She has four children now, this lady who was trapped in welfare. One of them has a good job; one of them is studying to be a doctor; one is in a technical school; the other one is a high school honor student. I’d say welfare reform worked for her. And it would work for nearly everybody if the rest of us will just create enough opportunity for all of those people who are dying to have it.

Now, I want to say, finally, we have got to take this law and make it live in the lives of our people. We can take poverty out of politics. We can give it back to the community. …”

It’s a hugely important point: It’s not just about the words on the page of a statute book. It’s the community response to make those words meaningful. The existing welfare reform law doesn’t go far enough to empower communities to make that happen, leaving far too much authority in the hands of governments with far too little oversight. But that’s fixable. It simply takes a sustained commitment to tackling the challenge head-on and a good faith effort to see it through.

Republicans are ready to advance the policy. And College Republicans are ready to advance the message to Millennials. All we need are our Democrat friends.