Work and family must be at the center of conservative anti-poverty policy, Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) argued in a Thursday speech.
Rubio's remarks came as part of his keynote address at the Heritage Foundation's annual Antipoverty Forum. Speaking as part of a line-up of intellectual and religious leaders discussing what future anti-poverty policy needs to look like, Rubio contended that the path to prosperity his parents took—owning a home and raising a family on service-industry wages—is increasingly closed off to most Americans.
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"If your financial assets and wealth are tied to stocks and real estate, your life is probably better than it has ever been—your wealth is doubled," Rubio said. "But at the same time that that was happening, the total productivity growth—basically what Americans actually produce—has declined. We produce less and are somehow worth more. That is the very definition of a bubble. That is not evidence of success."
This populist rhetoric is part-and-parcel with a labor-focused social policy. Such an approach, which targets for intervention the families of low-skill breadwinners, has quietly become a central focus of Rubio's policy agenda. This is apparent, for example, in his support for an expansion of the Child Tax Credit as part of the Tax Cut and Jobs Act, and introduction of a revenue-neutral approach to federal paid family leave.
"In recent years, [the low-skilled] path to prosperity has closed off, leaving many young men and women who do not have college degrees—the majority of the country—to chart their own courses where clear and attainable paths to a meaningful and prosperous life once existed. The cultural image of a stable working-class family life once thought to be the floor has become the ceiling," Rubio wrote in a recent essay outlining his policy priorities. "To re-make an America of stable families, we need an economy that delivers high wages to its workers in all parts of the country."
The senator made clear on Thursday that a pro-worker, conservative policy would need to clearly distinguish itself from the left's current offerings in the same field. He slammed proposals like a universal basic income or federal jobs guarantee, claiming that they "double down on what’s wrong in the first place"—failing to emphasize the importance of the dignity of productive work.
Instead, Rubio outlined the broad strokes of an aggressive program, focused on reversing American men's steadily declining rate of labor force participation, and lifting up low-skilled workers. These start with a number of reforms to federal tax law, like expanding the EITC and making permanent the full deductibility of firms' capital investments. Rubio also backed expanding work requirements in federal welfare programs like SNAP and disability insurance.
Rubio additionally endorsed a more aggressive trade policy, arguing that in defending workers from unfair foreign trade policy, "we need to make it painful for people who are trying to impose on us bad trade, and unfair trade, like China, a nation which at the direction of the Communist party and government are stealing the fruits of our innovation and our labor."
He also backed a greater emphasis on vocational education, which could raise the wages of blue-collar workers substantially by offering accreditation without an expensive college education.
Rubio concluded on a populist note, emphasizing again the importance of rethinking the status quo.
"If there's anything to be concerned about with regard to all this," Rubio said, "it is that a growing number of Americans and their children do not see a path today to the stability necessary for this. And it's clear that the status quo isn't working. And we must try a new way—one that applies the old wisdom that we seek to conserve to the new challenges of the new era."