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Closing the Gap: Sen. Marco Rubio on how more education, fewer broken families can change income inequality

February 12, 2014 at 6:14 PM EST
In the debate over how to cure income inequality, talk about poverty and opportunity are increasingly converging. In a series of conversations about the growing divide between rich and poor, Gwen Ifill talks to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., about the importance of encouraging strong families and improving educational opportunities as keys to restoring the American dream.
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GWEN IFILL: In recent months, the stubborn prosperity divide between the rich and poor in this country has gained the attention of both Democrats and Republicans. The issue is also the focus of our ongoing series Closing the Gap.

Last week, Judy spoke with Democratic Congressman George Miller of California about how he believes the problem should be tackled.

Today, I spoke earlier today with Sen. Marco Rubio in his Capitol Hill office. The Florida Republican recently unveiled his own anti-poverty agenda.

Senator Rubio, thank you for joining us for this discussion.

Everyone seems to be talking about inequality, but they’re also talking about opportunity, different — different definitions for economic growth. Are these all part of the same economic argument for you?

SEN. MARCO RUBIO, R-Fla.: They can be. And here is why.

So, we look at, what is the thing that has distinguished us from the world? It’s the idea that, no matter where you’re born in life or what the circumstances are when you’re born, like your parents being poor or not connected to power, you have a chance in this country to go as far as your talent and your work will take you.

We pride ourselves on that, and rightfully so. It made us exceptional. What troubles us now is that there are — research now shows that there are other countries where the circumstances of your birth matter less than they do here. It’s mattering more here than it is in other places. And we don’t want to accept that and we shouldn’t accept that.

So second question is: Why is that happening?  Why is there an emerging opportunity gap?  And the primary answer is because this new economy that we now live in, which is not an industrial economy, it’s a post-industrial economy, is a knowledge-based one.

In order to have middle-income, middle-paying jobs, the kinds of jobs that allow people to get ahead, you have to have higher level of training and skill acquisition and education than ever before. And we have too many people that don’t have those skills. And, in fact, the people who would most benefit from acquiring those skills are the ones least likely to get it because of its cost or because of the way the system is structured.

GWEN IFILL: Last week on the NewsHour, George Miller, liberal congressman from California, said that the secret to this, or at least the foundation, is raising the minimum wage. And the president today is signing his executive order, which would at least raise the minimum wage to $10.10 for federal contractors.

Is that the foundation of…

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: That’s certainly not the foundation of it.

So, I understand they may support that policy initiative. But to argue that raising the minimum wage is going to create upward mobility is, quite frankly, silly. I mean, $10.10 is not the American dream. The way you’re — the best way to look at it is to think about a person.

For example, someone who I know is a receptionist at a medical clinic. She makes very little money, maybe more than minimum wage, but not a lot. She’s a single mother who has two children to raise. So her life goes like this. She wakes up early in the morning, drops them off at school, works nine hours, picks them up from after-care, which costs a lot of money, takes them hope, helps them with homework, puts them to dinner — gives them dinner, and puts them to bed. It’s 10:00 at night.

That’s her life. The only way she’s ever going to increase how much money she makes is if she can become an ultrasound technician or a lab technician or a pharmacy assistant, not just the receptionist at the medical clinic.

To do that, she needs higher education. But how is she going to get higher education if she has to work and raise a family?  The system we have in place now doesn’t allow her to do that. That’s the answer to the problem.

GWEN IFILL: How does she benefit — stay with her for a moment — from your proposal to take federal anti-poverty spending, whatever it is, and put it in a block grant kind of flex fund and give to it the states to administer? How would that affect her life?

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: Well, first of all, she actually isn’t on poverty programs.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: She is employed, but she’s a low-income person, but probably makes too much for any of the poverty programs.

What she would benefit from is the wage enhancement program that I have talked about, which is taking the Earned Income Tax Credit and converting it to a wage enhancement, where the same benefit is delivered through the paycheck.

The other way she would benefit is through our education initiatives that now say you should be able to get the equivalent of a degree or an educational certificate by packaging together your work experience — so, clearly, she doing work now that should count toward something — free online course work, paid or unpaid internships, testing in proficiency.

For example, she could probably get six to eight credit hours in Spanish because she can speak it already. She doesn’t need to take courses to do that. And then create a mechanism, an alternative accrediting mechanism where you could package all those sorts of things together into a degree program that would give her the equivalent of a college degree at a much more flexible and affordable way.

GWEN IFILL: Who pays for this? Who pays for this wage enhancements, if not the federal government?

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: Well, it is. It’s the Earned Income Tax Credit. The money is there now.

And the question is that — all I’m arguing is not do away with it. What I’m saying it is, let’s transform it into a new way of delivering the same benefit.

GWEN IFILL: But a wage enhancement is a subsidy. That’s additional money in addition to…

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: Correct, toward your paycheck.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: But it’s determined by how much you make, from the same money we’re using for the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Now, the argument is, if you expand it so that it covers only single workers — I’m sorry — so it not — doesn’t just cover parents with children, but also single workers, would you have to put more money into it, and that’s what we’re working through as we prepare to file the legislation.

But the bottom line, it already is there. That money is already being used. The only problem is, it’s being delivered once a year, early in the year, when you get your tax refund. What I’m arguing is, a better way to deliver it is on biweekly — bimonthly basis, into your paycheck, as opposed to one lump sum at the beginning of the year.

GWEN IFILL: You said in your speech on this topic a couple of weeks ago that the war on poverty, the Johnson era war on poverty failed. Explain why you say that.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: Because it’s incomplete.

The war on poverty programs help address the pain of poverty. So, they alleviate the suffering of poverty. And that’s important. You do have to do that. But they don’t do the second step, which is help people emerge from the poverty.

To help people emerge from the poverty, you have to understand, what are the structural causes of it?  And the structural causes are partially cultural. We know that, the breakdown of families, destabilized neighborhoods, broken communities. And there are some things government can do about that, but a lot of that is on us as people. We have got to recognize that that’s a real factor.

GWEN IFILL: When you talk about the cultural piece of this, marriage in particular, and that that is — that there’s a correlation between marriage and people’s ability to succeed or at least to be mobile, economically mobile, what role does government play in that?

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: Well, that’s — first of all, we shouldn’t penalize marriage. We do have safety net programs that disqualify you when the two incomes come together. You get kicked out of the program. So, we shouldn’t be doing that.

As far as the impact that marriage has on children, the two reasons. One of them, from a practical perspective, two paychecks allow a family to have more buying power and more stability. And the other is, there’s real value in raising children in a strong and stable home. By the same token, it doesn’t mean that say, and the people that don’t have that, we give up on.

On the contrary, I think we recognize, as I have for a long time — and I have talked about this since I was in the state legislature — if you are a child, oftentimes being raised by your grandmother, because your mom is working full-time, your dad has never been around, you live in a dangerous neighborhood in substandard housing, and the school that you’re zoned into is not doing a good job, you have five strikes against you.

How are you going to — how are you going to make it unless something dramatic happens to change that perspective?

GWEN IFILL: As you know, we’re suddenly all talking about this. In the past, Democrats were the ones who talked about poverty, and Republicans were the ones who talked about, I don’t know, opportunity.

Now it seems as if the two arguments are coming together.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: Am I right about that?

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: I think so.

GWEN IFILL: You, Mike Lee, Paul Ryan all giving speeches about it and the president.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: It could.

See, but perhaps there’s a difference. And I don’t — I hope this issue doesn’t have to be partisan or, quite frankly, highly political. I think we can agree that we want this to be a country of equality, of opportunity, and upward mobility.

I believe that a vibrant free enterprise economy creates those sorts of opportunities. But I believe that there are barriers, educational barriers, cultural barriers, societal barriers, that are keeping people from accessing the promise of a vibrant free enterprise economy.

GWEN IFILL: You say you don’t want this to be partisan, but are you getting a lot of support from people in your party for this argument?

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: Sure. So, it’s — I am.

I mean, so, some of the ideas are coming from think tanks like American Enterprise Institute. But I have always…

GWEN IFILL: The Heritage Foundation didn’t…

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: Sure, as well. Well, they do. I mean, they have been helpful as well in some of the ideas that we have worked on.

And I think there is a drive towards that sort of reform notion that, look, we do have a growing opportunity gap in America. It’s hard to ignore that. And the question is, what solves it?  And there may be two schools of thought, right?

We hear from the left that the school of thought is, well, let’s just pour more money into 20th century programs. And my argument is, that is not going to work. We need 21st century programs. We have to change the dynamic because the world — we’re not in the Industrial Revolution anymore, where you could leave high school, go work at the town factory for 50 years, and retire with a pension.

The 21st century looks different. It’s been very disruptive. It has created a lot of insecurity. We have to adjust to that, because the 21st century has real promise. Now, the higher-paying jobs of this new century are fantastic. The problem is, you have to have some level of higher education, maybe not a four-year degree, but some level of higher education, to get those jobs.

And the people who most need those jobs are the least likely to have that education.

GWEN IFILL: Sen. Marco Rubio, thank you.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: We have more with Sen. Rubio on what he calls the all-or-nothing political challenge facing another critical issue he has championed: immigration reform. You can watch that video online.