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INTERVIEW (Part I): Foundation For Government Accountability Talks About The Conservative Approach To Fighting Poverty

During a recent hearing by the House Committee on the Budget, titled: “Solutions to Rising Economic Inequality,” Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) spoke with American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) Romesh Ponnuru about poverty in the United States.

Crenshaw noted that the conservative “focus” is on the individual “who actually needs our help … the people who are having trouble moving up the economic ladder.”

Unfortunately, for many years, Republicans have been on the “losing” end of the poverty debate. Democrats have taken the spotlight with talking points pertaining to income inequality, the shrinking middle class, and programs for the poor – but conservatives have just as much to say about reducing poverty.

On Thursday, I had the opportunity to speak with Whitney Munro, the Vice President of Communications for the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA), a conservative-leaning public policy organization focused on “using work to lift people out of dependency … and to empower them to take control of their futures,” according to their official website.

In part one of this two-part interview, Munro discusses the messaging issues plaguing the Republican Party when it comes to poverty, why progressives seem to hold all the cards in the debate, and what policies conservatives can advance.

DW: Do you think there’s a messaging problem among Republican politicians, and conservatives in general, when it comes to poverty and the alleviation of it?

MUNRO: Yeah. I think part of the problem is that the Left is really good at making us look bad about poverty no matter what, and we tend to always end up in the reactive, and the defensive instead of on the offensive with the messages and the things we know that work. We, as a movement, need to do a better job of putting ourselves out there and showing that we have solutions that we know work, we have solutions that actually help people, and we have solutions that reduce dependency – that’s our focus, and here’s what they are – instead of allowing ourselves to always respond to somebody else’s accusation that we’re uncaring and cold people.

DW: What can conservatives do to counter those progressive talking points about poverty?

MUNRO: I think conservatives need to make this a priority. I think we’re a little scared to say things like, “Our solutions are actually an opportunity,” and we have to take back what that means. Paul Ryan had his whole “opportunity” message, and I think a lot of that got lost in the shuffle, but opportunity is really something that free market solutions are intended for, to empower people.

The Left is really good at saying, “We need benefits. Benefits are the starting ground for people. If you take benefits away, you’re hurting people and you’re taking away their opportunity.” We need to talk about the fact that benefits are not intended to be anything long term. They’re intended to be a trampoline, to be a springboard. They’re a short term solution, and the opportunity comes through work, through stimulating the economy, and through creating opportunities for government to get out of the way, and for people to do what they’re really good at.

DW: Is that why you think progressives have the lead on this issue? Their talking points combined with the lack of response from the Right?

MUNRO: Yeah, I think so. We end up getting caught – the Right tends to think about, what is the nitty gritty of the policy, right? So when we’re talking on the Right, it’s, “We have this great reform called ‘X,’ and it does all of these things that we talk about in terms of dollars and cents,” but we’re not really talking about people, and real people are the focus of these policies. We need to flip that switch and show that there are real people out there who are impacted by this stuff – they need it, they want it, they’re hungry for it, they support it – and less about, “here’s the graph, and here’s a chart, and here’s the very black and white, dry aspect of these reforms.”

There’s a reason we all do what we do, which is to change and impact lives. It’s not about a cool chart or the number of taxpayer dollars saved in the long run. It’s about impacting people. The Left is great at talking about people, and bringing people out, and almost using people. I think it’s kind of a knee-jerk reaction on our part to do the opposite.

DW: What’s a policy for which conservatives can advocate that will help the poor and lift people up?

MUNRO: There’s two things here. We have to turn away from the idea that government can create a policy that is designed around that. The goal here is to get government out of the way, to make sure that government programs actually impact the truly needy, those who cannot help themselves. Then, we turn everything back to work, the private sector, personal responsibility, turn things back to their communities and the people who live in them.

Right now, there’s this sense, if you talk to anyone that, “Well, what is government going to do to solve that problem?” and we all know that that’s not working. So, the first thing we need to do is just change that cultural conversation away from that. At the FGA, we focus on work as a solution, and we don’t make work a bad thing. Work is a good thing. I think that’s the other piece that’s missing – sometimes we allow work to be demonized, like, “work is so hard” and “work is hard for people,” and “what happens to the single parent if you require them to work?” or “what happens to someone with a disability if you require them to work?” When in reality, we know that work is the number one way that people get out of poverty. The first job leads to the next job, which leads to the next best job, and it gets people out of those situations. So, we have to talk about work in a way that’s empowering, not in a way that’s a detriment to people.

We’ve done tracking studies in Kansas and Maine and Florida and Arkansas (we’re in the middle of a few more) that show that incomes more than double when you get people back to work and out of poverty. They find work in 600 or more industries, in Florida, with 1,000 or more industries. We need to celebrate those things, and make work something that is beautiful and awesome instead of something that is scary and, “Oh, gosh! How could you even think about making someone do that?”

DW: I know there are issues sometimes with state and federal laws where people are afraid to get a job that pays slightly better because then they’ll lose their benefits. What is the solution to that?

MUNRO: That’s a great question, and that is some of the pushback that people get when they talk about things like work requirements. The reality is, once you get to that place where you’re making enough that you lose, maybe it’s food stamps, you’re more than making up for the loss of that benefit in your wages. All of the tracking studies and all the data we have kind of proves that people aren’t financially hurt by those situations where they would be working and then lose some of that benefit.

DW: Who or what organization runs your research?

MUNRO: We do all of our research in house. However, we partner – and we do a tracking study with people who are on welfare, on Medicaid – we actually partner with the state agencies. So, all of the data we use for that research comes directly from the state agencies’ data storage. We get their files, we give them an amount of time that we’re tracking people, and then we whittle that down into the results that we’re looking for.

DW: Is there a reason we’re not really seeing conservative politicians at large pushing these reform ideas that your organization advocates?

MUNRO: With the Farm Bill battle earlier this year and last year, there was a big push for things like work requirements. The House really did try to get this out there. There were anti-fraud measures, there were different provisions that were put into the Farm Bill. I do think though, and it goes back to what I told you in the beginning, a lot of this was about dollars and cents, and we’ve got to talk about people.

At a state level, the states have been incentivized. That’s something that we’re working on – but I think that there’s a challenge there in knowing what are the barriers in place, what are the problems that you’re facing, and what is the right step. That’s what FGA is doing on a regular basis – just talking to policy makers and saying, did you even know that your state has this waiver in place? Did you even know that in counties in your state, there were this many people not working simply because you guys aren’t following the 1996 welfare reform? There’s a lot of misinformation out there, and we’re trying to flip that on its head and make sure people know and understand what they can do to help the people in their community.

Stay tuned for part two of this interview, which will be released on Tuesday, where Munro will talk about attacks from leftist organizations, pervasive welfare abuse, “workforce” issues, and much more.

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