Last week's Kemp Forum

Six Republican presidential candidates joined Party and conservative thought-leaders in early-primary state South Carolina last weekend for a major forum aimed at addressing poverty and opportunity.

The candidates – Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich, and Marco Rubio – engaged in deliberate and thoughtful conversation through the course of the day.

With much more agreement than disagreement among the candidates – regarding what is wrong with what they called traditional Democratic remedies to poverty and the opportunity gap, as well as on what Republicans are or should be proposing – the event probably succeeded in its intention to establish poverty and opportunity as a common-ground issue and message on the conservative and Republican side. Whether the subject will be a highlight of the campaigns going forward remains a question.

Photo courtesy of Megan Davis

Every Child Matters proudly cosponsored the effort to elevate these crucial topics for the country’s future. No group of Americans is more profoundly affected by poverty and the worsening opportunity gap than children. Every Child Matters staff in the state joined the South Carolina-based Institute for Child Success at the offices of the Children’s Trust of South Carolina for a webinar the day prior to the forum. Charlie Bruner of the Child and Family Policy Center presented important data on children and poverty – nationally and in South Carolina. Bruner, an eminent children’s advocate, also selected statements from participating candidates which are not only notable, but generally unheard during normal campaign discourse.


Jeb Bush: Poverty is complex – it is not just economic deprivation; there are all sorts of limits to opportunity. The only way we’re going to become a more just society is from the bottom up. We have to listen and learn before we set policies and lead. … Men are becoming obsolete in lower-income communities. Withholding adjudication as part of getting drug treatment is needed to reduce incarceration. You have to get men engaged in the workforce again.

Marco Rubio: If you are a child born into a broken family, in an unstable home, in a dangerous neighborhood, in substandard housing, in a school that’s failing in your community, where the people on the street corners are drug dealers or not good role models, you’ve got six strikes against you. We need to be focusing on breaking the model for those with six strikes against them. We need to focus on eradicating poverty – we treat the pain of poverty today. We need to empower people who can work with and mentor people in poverty to turn their lives around. … One of the great injustices is that the only people who cannot chose where to educate their children are poor people. I would like to open Pell grants to high school students who go to community college to learn a trade.

Mike Huckabee: I believe there is an incredible opportunity to restore the opportunity for upward mobility. We need a new vision and approach. We must attack fundamental reasons people cannot get out of poverty. If you’re a single mom and you are able to get WIC, food stamps, and maybe housing assistance, you face cutoffs when you earn a little more. Rather than work getting them ahead, work could totally impoverish families. Those welfare mothers are a lot smarter than those in Washington who fashioned the system.

Chris Christie: Drugs are a huge problem. The war on drugs hasn’t worked – incarceration is not the answer. People can be treated – this is a disease, and this is a family issue. Treat, not incarcerate. … Education is key. We need longer school days and longer school years to educate our youth.

John Kasich: It is immoral that we are locking up those with bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia. The working poor and those with drug addiction and mental health issues live in the shadows. We must have an attitude that everyone has an opportunity to rise. Everybody deserves a chance. It is an attitude of economic growth with everyone having an opportunity rise. It’s a sin not to help people who need help but it is a sin to continue to help people who can help themselves.


Convened in South Carolina’s capitol city of Columbia by the Jack Kemp Foundation, participants at Saturday’s Forum on Expanding Opportunity generally addressed poverty and opportunity first as a matter of moral obligation. But the day’s subject seemed also aimed at turning a perceived weakness into a pro-active argument for conservatives and Republicans.

“Conservatives are bringing their A-game to fighting poverty and creating opportunity,” declared House Speaker Paul Ryan, a moderator of the event along with SC Senator Tim Scott and, who, as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said he has been traveling to poor communities for three years to learn and to explore policy remedies. “There are now two parties in this,” Ryan said.

Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, amplified the point. Conservatives with an optimistic philosophy that addresses poverty and opportunity are not only “right in your hearts,” he told the largely Republican audience. He said it also could be the only thing to win over a majority of Americans.

To learn more about statements, actions and positions of all the candidates in both major parties on poverty and children’s issues, please visit our Digital Dialogue at Bookmark this page and follow us on Facebook and Twitter as we update this dialog in real time during the run-up to the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries.