Rubio says LBJ's war on poverty failed "because it's incomplete"

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has put fighting poverty at the top of his agenda 50 years after President Lyndon Johnson used his State of the Union address to declare a “war on poverty.”

Rubio, who spoke to CBS’ Bob Schieffer about his ideas on “Face the Nation” Sunday, said Johnson’s vision never really came to fruition.

“As far as the war on poverty is concerned, its programs have utility. They do help alleviate the consequences of poverty, but they don't help people to emerge from that poverty. And that's why I feel like the war on poverty has failed, because it's incomplete,” Rubio said. “I think we have failed to take the next step, which is to help people trapped with inequality of opportunity to have the opportunities to build for themselves a better life.”

Rubio outlined his proposals in a speech last week, included streamlining federal antipoverty programs into a “Flex Fund” that would be distributed to the states to spend how they see fit, and replacing the Earned Income Tax Credit with a so-called “federal wage enhancement” to supplement the income earned by those in low-wage jobs in order to make working more attractive than collecting unemployment benefits.

He said that some antipoverty programs, like the administration’s Head Start initiative, are “geared in the right direction” but need to be reformed and given more flexibility in the hands of local officials.

“I'm not saying we should dismantle the efforts. I'm saying that these efforts need to be reformed and I believe the best way to reform them is to turn the money and the influence over to the state and local level, where I think you'll find the kinds of innovations that allow us to confront an issue that's complex and, quite frankly, diverse,” he said. 

 Proposals to block-grant funds to states have drawn some criticism from Democrats like Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who appeared on the show after Christie and said the idea “bothers me.”

“If you're gonna take these programs, if you're going to say that about Medicare, too, and put it in a basket in the states -- you see what states have done,” Cummings said. He noted that in Rubio’s home state of Florida, “we've got 800,000 people, Bob, who could have been placed in Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and could be being treated right now. There are people watching this show right now that could be being treated for colon cancer or serious diseases that are not. And he hasn't done anything on that.”

News reports generally estimate the number of Floridians who would be covered by a Medicaid expansion to be about 1 million people.

Rubio argued that an expansion of the Medicare program for the states is different than what he was suggesting because the states would be on the hook for the costs after a few years.

“Under Obamacare, when you turn Medicaid over to the states, what you're saying to them is, the money will be available up front for the expansion for a few years.  Then, the money will go away, but you get stuck with the unfunded liability,” he said.

Politifact reports states will not be left with the entire cost of expanding Medicaid. The federal government will pay the 100 percent cost of expansion for the first three years, and states would gradually have to assume 10 percent of the cost but not more over time.

But Cummings did say he was pleased to hear Rubio’s admission that federal anti-poverty programs have helped many people out of poverty in recent decades. He also said he hoped Rubio would be “one of the lead people” in raising the minimum wage, a top Democratic priority in 2014.

That is unlikely to happen. In his speech last week, Rubio argued that a minimum wage increase was not the solution to help the country’s poor.

“Raising the minimum wage may poll well, but having a job that pays $10 an hour is not the American Dream. And our current government programs, offer at best only a partial solution. They help people deal with poverty, but they do not help them escape it,” he said.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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