Republicans say US war on poverty hasn't measured up

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US conservatives seized on Wednesday's 50th anniversary of the launch of president Lyndon Johnson's "war on poverty" to dispute the effectiveness of existing policies, and urge a welfare state overhaul.

"Five decades and trillions of dollars after president Johnson waged his war on poverty, the results of this big-government approach are in," Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a potential White House aspirant in 2016, said in a speech in the US Capitol's appropriately named Lyndon Johnson room.

"We have four million Americans who have been out of work for six months or more," he went on. "We have a staggering 49 million Americans living below the poverty line."

Mr Johnson's historic initiative achieved some noble victories in battles to help low-income Americans, some Republicans said, but the war is far from won, and perhaps slipping into stalemate.

"I don't argue with the intentions, I just believe they overestimated the ability of government to have the effects that they anticipated," Senator John McCain, who unsuccessfully challenged President Barack Obama for the White House in 2008, told AFP.

"So the grade, probably, is mixed."

Reforms proposed by conservatives include slashing aid like food stamps, which are distributed to needy families, repackaging costly entitlement programmes, and expanding training for the unskilled and unemployed.

Anti-poverty programmes help mitigate the impact of poverty, but throwing financial aid at the problem does not tackle its cause, Mr Rubio said.

"We have the single greatest engine of upward mobility in human history at our disposal: the American free enterprise system."

House Speaker John Boehner stressed that the Republican Party is doing its part, by pushing employment-generating legislation.

"The one solution that we all know that works is a job," Mr Boehner said.

The anniversary of Mr Johnson's 1964 speech comes as Mr Obama and Democratic allies seek to extend benefits for the long-term unemployed, a move many Republicans oppose for budgetary and ideological reasons.

Democrats are also trying to increase the hourly minimum wage from US$7.25 (S$9.20) to over US$10, but again they face Republican opposition.

The White House has framed these two measures in the wider context of the fight against inequality, which Mr Obama intends to make one of the political themes of 2014.

On Wednesday he praised the social safety net in place for half a century, beginning with the public pension system known as Social Security and public health care for seniors, called Medicare.

The remaining poverty should only harden American resolve to strengthen existing programs, Mr Obama said.

"If we hadn't declared 'unconditional war on poverty in America', millions more Americans would be living in poverty today," he added.

But Republican Senator Rob Portman said Mr Obama's policies have failed to generate enough job growth to tip the scales.

"If LBJ looked today, 50 years later, he'd be surprised that we still have such high rates of poverty, and it's actually gone up in the last four years, not down," Mr Portman said.