Commonsense Conservative For Ohio


Cleveland Plain Dealer: Sen. Rob Portman makes anti-poverty debut

By Stephen Koff

May 13, 2014


WASHINGTON, D.C. – You've heard of compassionate conservatism. Rob Portman has a plan for fighting poverty that he calls "constructive conservatism."

The components are not new to those who follow Ohio's junior U.S. senator closely, but Portman has not previously cast them in the manner he did Tuesday: in front of an audience of brainy conservatives who help influence public policy in Washington.

This, then, was Portman's anti-poverty coming-out speech, in the auditorium of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank. Portman is known as a budget and trade wonk, heading White House departments for those subjects under President George W. Bush. If his AEI speech gains attention, the Ohio Republican with presidential aspirations could be seen as more multi-dimensional, although he says his intent is to get people thinking about "evidence-based" approaches and he never mentioned his own ambitions.

Portman's highlights:

  • Drugs: Drug addiction keeps too many people in poverty and is directly linked, he said, to a high rate of imprisonment. More community-based prevention and addiction-treatment programs are needed.

Portman was a sponsor of the Drug Free Communities Act of 2007, passed when he was in the House of Representatives and Bill Clinton was in the White House. It has provided grants to about 2,000 local coalitions composed of parents, children, school leaders and prevention specialists in communities, Portman said.

"To give you some idea of their impact, in the communities where these coalitions are operating, use of alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana have declined significantly in all grade levels, with middle school alcohol use down 20 percent, tobacco use down 26 percent, and marijuana use down 23 percent," he said. "These coalitions are successful because they are a community asset and a community institution, not a government one."

Along these lines, Portman said he is opposed to decriminalization of marijuana because it sends a signal of permissiveness and tolerance toward drug use.    

  •  Prison: It is popular among conservatives, Portman said, to blame childhood poverty on the prevalence of single-parent families where a father is out of the picture, and statistically this has some validity. But that does nothing to solve the problem, Portman said. And a big part of the problem is that many of these fathers are in prison. Even when men are released, the chances are strong that they will break the law and go to prison again, he said.

"We know that when kids finish high school, get a full-time job, and wait till they are married until they have children, only two percent of them will end up in poverty," he said. "Just two percent. That's a great statistic. But tell it to a child whose father is in jail, whose mother struggles with addiction, who has no reason to believe that the future holds anything for him but more of the same."

Thus, he said, more communities and states need to adopt programs to cut recidivism. Portman has worked across the political aisle on this issue by sponsoring the Second Chance Act with the late Democratic Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Cleveland. He is trying to get it reauthorized now.

"Since its enactment in 2009, the Act has supported over 300 local, tribal and state agencies, nonprofits and faith-based organizations working to help transition inmates back into their communities with the help they need to stay out of prison," Portman said. "Like the Drug Free Communities Act, we followed the principles of constructive conservatism: evidence-based best practices, leverage, and outcome analysis."

The investment is paying off, Portman said. "In Ohio and Texas, recidivism has fallen by 11 percent. It's 20 down 15 percent in Kansas and a remarkable 18 percent in Michigan, saving taxpayers tens of millions of dollars."

Neither of these ideas -- anti-drug programs and programs to reduce prison recidivism -- is new, and they can appear to nibble around the edges of the poverty issue. But Portman put it this way: "Families and communities, broken by drug abuse, repeat incarceration, and a lack of hope or opportunity, are increasingly what drives poverty."

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