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Republicans Want To Change The Conversation About Poverty


Earlier today, six Republican presidential candidates all travelled to South Carolina to talk about a topic many do not consider a priority in politics today. The subject was fighting poverty and how best to help the 46 million Americans still living in poverty. Dr. Ben Carson, governors Chris Christie and John Kasich, Sen. Marco Rubio, former governors Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee all made it to Columbia, S.C., for the forum. Notably absent were frontrunner Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz. Carly Fiorina also missed the event due to a travel snag. But the poverty forum was organized by Sen. Tim Scott and the new speaker of the House, Paul Ryan. Sen. Scott might be particularly well-suited to leading this conversation. Raised by single mom who worked as a nurse's aide, he's now considered a rising star in the GOP. When he first came to Congress in 2010, he made history as the first black Congressional Republican to be elected from the Deep South since Reconstruction. And now he's one of only two African-Americans in the Senate. We reached Sen. Scott just after the forum ended at the Columbia Convention Center in Columbia, S.C. Sen. Scott, thanks so much for speaking with us.

TIM SCOTT: Absolutely, Michel, it's kind of you to have me back on the show. I thought you had forgotten about me.

MARTIN: Never - never that - never that. Well, how did it go in your assessment? Was it what you hoped for?

SCOTT: I thought it certainly met my expectations and perhaps exceeded it. It was a wonderful opportunity for us to engage both the heart and the mind. And the candidates who were on stage did a fabulous job of presenting multiple solutions to the - what I consider one of the most challenging issues - the issue of poverty.

MARTIN: You know, it's no secret that many people consider that poverty is not a priority for either of the major political parties today. But I don't think you would disagree with me that perhaps many feel that it's even less of a priority for the Republicans than the Democrats. Do you think that's a fair assessment and is it, in part, the purpose of this forum to change that?

SCOTT: I wouldn't go that far. I do believe that the number one issue of the day has been national security, and will probably remain so for months to come and rightly so. I do believe that both parties struggle with how to present real solutions to the issue of poverty. On one side, we have the Democrats, who continue to look for ways to increase spending so that we can solve the problem. Those of us on the right, we continue to talk about free-market economies and how to build the right economy. But the fact of the matter is, we have not translated that into how does that impact the individual living in poverty. We can do a better job.

MARTIN: What does it say, though, that the person that many consider the frontrunner in the current presidential campaign, Donald Trump, did not attend? Does that mean something?

SCOTT: Not to me, it doesn't. I mean, what it says to me is that we had six candidates - leading candidates from my perspective - who were all present and talking about a very important issue. And I believe that if we are not clear and concise with a real plan on the issue of poverty, it's going to be very, very difficult to be successful in the November election.

MARTIN: You wrote a piece, along with Speaker Ryan, in The Wall Street Journal. It was posted on January 7, saying that we see Saturday's forum as our party's chance to stop carping from the cheap seats and to get into the driver's seat on this issue. I understand that you feel it's important public policy - but is it important as a method of being credible with people who you hope will join the party at some point? And if so, some might argue, you know, why, if this is not a group of people who have traditionally voted Republican?

SCOTT: Well, I think it's more important for us to spend time trying to attract good ideas that solve problems for anyone who has challenges in this country, if we can do so. I don't see the federal government as a panacea to all problems. So I think it's very important for us - not as a party but for us as Americans - to work together on solving issues that have been so difficult to solve. And when that happens - and it typically happens in a bipartisan fashion - the country is better.

MARTIN: But to that end, though, I mean, you said that this is an issue on which both parties really need to work together. There's a line also in your piece that you wrote with Paul Ryan that you said that we expect the candidates will have their differences, but that's only because they have ideas, which is more than the other party is offering. Is that really fair?

SCOTT: Well, I've listened to the other side critique where we are on the issue of poverty, too, so I'm not going to really speak to the issue of fairness because I think that the fact of the matter is that when you're in a competition for the hearts and the minds of voters that you're going to do all that you can to encourage and persuade them your way.

MARTIN: OK. But I think the other say would say that supporting increases in the minimum wage, addressing the issues around childcare, things of that sort, are also ideas - they happen to be different ideas.

SCOTT: Michel, I think you're right. I think those are ideas, and I'm open to a debate on those ideas. I am suggesting that we have had seven years of experimentation, and it has not produced results that have lowered the percentage of Americans stuck in poverty. And, frankly, the number of Americans depending more on the government has increased. I think we can do better.

MARTIN: That was Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican of South Carolina. He moderated the Jack Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity. It was held in Columbia, S.C., today and six Republican presidential candidates attended and talked about the policies toward poverty in the United States. Senator Scott, thanks so much for speaking with us.

SCOTT: Yes, ma'am, Michel. God bless. Have a good day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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