As the outrage at the income gap grows and more states and cities are taking action, both parties recognize this as a key election year issue. I recently heard a Democratic campaign staffer talk about the party’s eagerness to see minimum wage increases on the ballot in key states, knowing that will drive up turnout for their candidates (whether those candidates will do much to ultimately address the income gap is another question). It’s something congressional Democrats will jump on rhetorically, though the only real hope for change in the short-term is at the state and local level.
Republicans see the writing on the wall and are trying to jump in on the debate, but with a proposal that is out of step with national trends: promoting marriage.
In his speech on poverty last week, Marco Rubio held up marriage as the primary cure for that which afflicts the poor. “The truth is, the greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82%,” said Rubio. “But it isn’t a government spending program. It’s called marriage.” To be sure, Rubio is not married to marriage as the greatest tool of upward mobility – later in the speech, he asserted, “We have the single greatest engine of upward mobility in human history at our disposal: the American free enterprise system.” (If you have a problem with there being two greatest tools in human history for lifting people out of poverty, you’re probably not a Rubio voter in the first place.)
It’s sad that the US government is so invested in promoting the institution of marriage that people are often dependent on it for access to essential services like health care. Ideally our society would take care of people regardless of their relationship status, especially now that marriage is on the decline, and many people that would have been married years ago are choosing cohabitation. It’s one thing to debate the idea of incentivizing marriage, but some conservative proposals would even punish reluctance to enter into it:
Rubio at least gestures in the direction of a pro-marriage policy by proposing to change the Earned Income Tax Credit. The credit subsidized low-income workers of modest means; Rubio would make it more generous for low-income married couples, and more stingy for single parents. It’s questionable whether Rubio’s policy would actually do much to encourage marriage, and it’s certain it would have enormously noxious side effects, by impoverishing single parents and their children.
Rubio’s proposal is at least specific. Others are merely paeans to the value of marriage without any real solutions for inequality.
It’s useful that we find ourselves in a time when commitment to addressing income inequality is seen as an electoral asset, and activists can exploit that dynamic. But we have to push for action from both parties, and hold them to moving beyond rhetoric to implementation of real policies that will help all struggling Americans regardless of their marital status.