This Saturday, conservative leaders will gather in South Carolina for the “Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity” co-hosted by Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Tim Scott. With an overall poverty rate of 18 percent in 2014, South Carolina ranks among the 10 poorest states in the country and has one of the lowest rates of health-insurance coverage. And for low-income South Carolinians, these statistics are merely a reminder of the harsh realities they face.
Billed as an opportunity for conservatives to outline their major plans on tackling poverty, the forum comes after months of heightened rhetoric on poverty and inequality—including a poverty tour by then–Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan. These events are part of a concerted effort by conservative lawmakers and the media to paint the War on Poverty as a failure, even though the safety net reduced the poverty rate by more than half and lifted 48 million people above the poverty line in 2012.
Unfortunately, this newfound concern for poverty is at odds with a conservative policy agenda that would exacerbate inequality, hardship, and wage stagnation.
Under his “Opportunity Grant” proposal, Ryan has proposed converting a number of programs to state block grants, a decision that nonpartisan analysis suggests would reduce families’ ability to access key programs such as nutrition and housing assistance. In crafting this idea, Ryan and other conservatives often point to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program as a model—even though it does very little to mitigate poverty and hardship and is unresponsive to recessions.
Furthermore, in their most recent congressional budgets, Republicans obtained two-thirds of their cuts from programs helping low- and moderate-income families, while channeling additional resources towards tax cuts for the wealthy.
South Carolinians like Dr. Ebony Hilton take issue with this approach. Dr. Hilton grew up in poverty in Spartanburg, a city located almost 100 miles north of Columbia, as the middle child of a mother with only a high-school education. Now she earns in the six figures and serves as the first black female anesthesiologist at the Medical University of South Carolina. Dr. Hilton credits federal programs like Pell Grants for much of her success. As she told TalkPoverty, “Pell Grants allowed me to pursue higher education because when I was going through college, there was no option to call home for money for books or tuition or fees. The overwhelming amount of debt can be tremendous and can stop people from taking that extra step to pursue their life passion.”