The GOP's response to President Obama's income-inequity message is to push job-training and education proposals. Those could work, helping people to get the skills they need to start climbing the economic ladder again. But first, Republicans in Congress would have to agree to do something more than talk about it. They may even have to cough up some money for it.
Education advocates point to multiple cuts in education and job-training programs since 2010. The cuts amount to about $3.7 billion in discretionary funds, according to the Committee for Education Funding. Head Start alone has lost $401 million in one year just from the sequester reductions, cutting off services to 57,000 low-income children.
These harsh budget figures — and there are more where those came from — don't bode well for a GOP that is trying to empathize with people who are struggling with poverty. Republicans' policy ideas on education could be winners for the general public if lawmakers can back them up with action. The GOP proposals include increased schooling options for families and training programs for people who receive means-tested benefits.
But if they can't bend even a little bit on the money, their education message could wind up being nothing but smoke and mirrors.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor on Wednesday made an impassioned plea to expand options for charter schools, vouchers for private schools, and flexible funding for poverty-stricken school districts.
"School choice is the surest way to break this vicious cycle of poverty," Cantor said in a speech at the Brookings Institution.
Cantor also denounced the federal government's current and past efforts to fix the school systems as "hundreds of billions of dollars to improve schools in low-income areas with little to no effect."
Cantor was echoing a familiar GOP view that the government needs to get out of the education game.
Paradoxically, that leaves lawmakers few options to actually do anything.
House Republicans are touting an anti-poverty campaign that includes an elementary and secondary education bill that passed the House this summer. All Democrats opposed it because it would lock in the austere education budget caps required under sequestration. The omnibus appropriations bill set to be unveiled next week will likely add a little bit to the current education bottom line, but even if that happens, it's still not much to work with.
"It's going to be really difficult under the current caps to do anything significantly new," said Joel Packer, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding. "You're just kind of reshuffling the chairs."
Republicans respond to these criticisms by saying they want to consolidate duplicative education and training programs. But the politically expendable ones won't offer much in the way of savings, according to Packer. More than two-thirds of the discretionary education budget is taken up with programs that Republicans and Democrats alike care deeply about — Pell Grants, funding for poor school districts, and funding for educating kids with disabilities.
Rep. Steve Southerland of Florida is one of the few Republicans who has actually proposed legislation that would make federal job-training funding available to states. But there's a catch. Those states would have to agree to require food-stamp recipients to work, look for work, or volunteer. Southerland's much-pilloried food-stamp proposal blew up the farm bill last fall.
Southerland is backing off on his insistence that a food-stamp work requirement be part of the farm bill, saying he would happily accept a pilot program to allow states to experiment with his idea. But in the process, he has also made it clear that he embraces federal dollars for job training. "We believe in those training dollars, and that's why we incorporated them into our bill," he said Wednesday.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., said he wants job training and work opportunities (and requirements) to be incorporated into more government programs for the poor.
"Whether you're preparing for work or volunteering, it does get you back into the workforce," he said.
These ideas hearken back to the 1996 welfare overhaul that required work and job training for welfare recipients. The proposals were radical at the time but were later widely considered a success.
Republicans now grouse that the Obama administration has gutted the welfare work requirement. Democrats grouse back that the GOP has forced a gutting of education and training budgets.
Perhaps they can find a happy medium.