WASHINGTON -- Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty turned 50 last week.
Conservatives marked the semi-centenary by reviving something nearly as old: the War on the War on Poverty.
Some of the more strategic-minded Republicans, including Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor, have been talking about how the party might do better by the poor. But if you want to get a sense of where the GOP consensus is on the have-nots, you'd learn more from the news conference held Wednesday by the conservative Republican Study Committee, which claims as members 174 of the 233 House Republicans.
The chairman of the RSC's "anti-poverty initiative" is one Rep. Steve Southerland, a funeral director from the Florida Panhandle who is best known for heading an effort to dismantle the food-stamp program.
Southerland led five other white men in suits onto the stage Wednesday and declared the War on Poverty a failure. "It's clear we're now engaged in a battle of attrition that has left more Americans in poverty than at any other point in our nation's history," he said. There are 46 million in poverty, he added, "despite more than $15 trillion to fight this War on Poverty. Clearly the big government ideas of the past need to be improved and aren't working to the extent that they should. We have a moral obligation to break the mold."
CNN's Dana Bash asked the mold-breaker what he thought of the White House's claim that the poverty rate fell from 25.8 percent in 1967 to 16 percent in 2012. "The percentage of people in poverty today as compared to 50 years ago as a percentage is less," he acknowledged. "But I also want to make sure it is very clear that there are more Americans living in poverty."
Well, yes, 10 million more Americans are in poverty now than there were in 1963 -- but the overall population has increased by 125 million. If you include all of the financial assistance from anti-poverty programs, the poverty rate dips to be
low 8 percent today. And people who are poor suffer less because they receive health care through Medicaid and nutrition through food stamps.
But that will change if Southerland succeeds. After his food-stamp fight, he is perhaps not the ideal Republican messenger on poverty, but House Speaker John Boehner, at a separate conference Wednesday, praised Southerland's position as "a step in the right direction," and Southerland reacted angrily when a reporter mentioned his efforts to cut food stamps.
"I have no cuts in my amendment," he said. "Let's just be crystal clear."
OK, let's. Southerland didn't name a specific level of cuts, but the whole idea was to reduce spending, which he complained had tripled (largely because of the economic crisis). The amendment -- to a bill that would have cut food stamps by $39 billion over 10 years -- offered to let states keep half of the savings they got from dropping people from the program.
Southerland proposed to accomplish this by requiring able-bodied recipients (including those with children as young as 12 months) to work -- an impossible standard because not enough jobs are available and because Southerland didn't provide new funding for training.
Southerland and his RSC colleagues cited the example of 1996 welfare reform, enacted before all but one of them was in Congress. I covered that debate, and part of the justification for attaching time limits and work requirements to cash welfare payments was that recipients wouldn't fall through the cracks because they could get food stamps.
Other than making food-stamp recipients take nonexistent jobs, the RSC had few specific ideas for replacing the War on Poverty. Some were old: reform the tax code, open the Keystone XL oil pipeline, issue private-school vouchers, remove restrictions on states.
Southerland bristled at a reporter's question about the perception that Republicans don't care about poverty. He mentioned his past service as chairman of the Salvation Army of Panama City and other good works, and those of Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia, who wasn't in attendance. "Every 90 days, Frank meets with every food bank in his district. I dare one of you to print that!"
I'm not sure what I get for taking Southerland up on his dare. But I know this: Food banks, the Salvation Army and other private charities, though vital, are not a replacement for the federal government.
After 50 years, there are shortcomings in the War on Poverty. But the answer is not to scrap it and to return us to the 19th Century.