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Politics & Government

Sen. Scott: Democrats Too Focused On Symptoms Of Poverty?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We want to start the program today with a newsmaker interview with U.S. Senator Tim Scott. This year marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty. So throughout 2014, we've been talking about what poverty looks like in America now. And we've also been talking about what kinds of solutions are being talked about now. Many advocates say that a part of the problem is that few political leaders even talk about poverty anymore. And our next guest is one of the exceptions.

Senator Scott, Republican from South Carolina, has been talking about poverty and how to address it from a conservative point of view since he was first elected to serve in the House in 2010. Considered a Tea Party favorite, he was appointed to fill the seat vacated by Senator Jim DeMint last year. And when he was, he became the first black senator to represent the South since the late 1800s.

Senator Scott is up for election in his own right this year. He's been going about the job a bit differently than others, though. In addition to meeting with editorial boards and groups of supporters, he's also volunteered sans entourage at a Goodwill store. He's also had stints sweeping floors, bagging groceries and waiting tables to better understand the issues of the working poor. And we reached him at his office on Capitol Hill. Senator Scott, thanks so much for joining us.

SEN. TIM SCOTT: Thank you, Michel. It's good to be on the show with you.

MARTIN: So let me start with asking you the premise of the point that I made in my introduction, which is a lot of people say that poverty is kind of off the radar with your colleagues from both sides of the aisle. Do you think that that's true?

SCOTT: Well, there's certainly an opportunity for us to move the entire country forward with no exceptions as it relates to economic issues. And it's important for us to focus on that.

MARTIN: But are you? Are you focusing on that?

SCOTT: We all need to focus on it more. There's no doubt about that. I think my office is doing so because my personal life's journey has started in poverty and lead to opportunity. And I want to make sure that others who find themselves perhaps in the quagmire pit of poverty find a way out as well.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that. I mean, what calls you to this particular work? I mean, a lot of people have noted that you are - don't take offense at this - you're kind of following the Hillary Clinton rule, which is trying to be, in your first term in the Senate, a workhorse and not a show horse. You are, by dint of a lot of factors, already a national figure. But you have chosen very carefully what to be heard on in a national context, and you've clearly chosen this. And I wanted to ask why.

SCOTT: I think it's - really it's is one of the fastest and best ways for me to honor my mom's sacrifice and her struggle that has produced really two pretty successful guys, myself being the least of the two of us. My brother, being a command sergeant major in the United States Army, has risen to that rank because he had instilled in him work ethic, integrity, character and a love and passion for people. And that led him into the military when he could no longer afford college. And for me, I think it's the same story.

We found ourselves, when my parents were divorced, living with my grandparents in a two-bedroom house, which means that me, my brother, my mother had to share one room. And ultimately, I think so often what shapes your worldview is what happens when you're young. And so for me, the challenge and the devastation of growing up without means and/or resources has shaped my worldview very clearly. And then I met a mentor who was a business owner who taught me that you could think - i.e., go through education - to find a route out of poverty and not simply athletics or entertainment.

And so I think that's just dedicated my life, according to my desires for the last 30 years, to positively impacting the lives of a billion people with a message of hope and opportunity. Hope has more to do with my faith. And opportunity has a lot to do with my financial literacy or financial independence, which, of course, bleeds into the opportunity agenda.

MARTIN: Well, one step - one recent step that you've taken - and if you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Republican Senator Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina. We are talking about his conservative views on how to address poverty. This is part of our year-long series on poverty in America now, commemorating the 50th anniversary of LBJ's war on poverty.

You teamed up with Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, to advance an idea for apprenticeship programs that would encourage people to - or give people sort of opportunities to work and to retrain and to refresh their skills. What's different about this idea than some of the things that are already out there?

SCOTT: Well, this is the old concept of earn while you learn. So here's an opportunity that - I give credit to Cory for finding a great South Carolina idea that works and then calling up on this South Carolina senator to join him. And the LEAP Act, of course, gives people a chance to experience work - i.e., and make a living - and at the same time, become better trained and better equipped to make a bigger difference in the workforce. And so what the LEAP Act does is it provides a tax credit for employers for hiring people who we would consider the most vulnerable, economically. And if you're younger - 25 and under - you get a larger tax credit for - than hiring someone who's over 25.

MARTIN: What - can I ask you about people who say, look, I credit you on this whole question of investment in the future. Education is important to that and critical to that, but I need help now. I mean, there are people who need help now.


MARTIN: The Democrats have been very critical of Republicans trying to curtail, for example, the food stamp program and other sort of social supports that offer help to people right now. What do you say to that?

SCOTT: I think the criticism is not fair whatsoever. Here's a fact - the programs that help those who are dependent have gone up since 2008, 2010 by a high percentage. So the question really isn't cutting the baseline of those programs. It's finding an alternative where those programs will not be needed by the people who are currently benefiting from those programs. So I think how we frame the argument is how we create lather for constituencies. I don't want to have...

MARTIN: OK, but I understand - forgive me. Forgive me, Senator, for interrupting.

SCOTT: Certainly, but...

MARTIN: But what's the relevance of that to somebody who needs - who says, I don't care about all that. If there's growth in the numbers, it's because more people need the help.

SCOTT: Well, if there's...

MARTIN: So why aren't those two separate issues?

SCOTT: Michel, it's a really simple answer, honestly. The answer is this - that if there are growth in the people who need the benefits, we ought to look at the underlying causes of the growth. If you are spending no time at all addressing that which creates the need, perhaps you'll never find the path to eliminating the need. And that's the real challenge. We have a bunch of folks in Congress focused on the need for tomorrow. The question is, when you look at the communities that are most vulnerable, how many people are focusing on their needs of the future? I would say, not enough.

MARTIN: Can I ask you - I just spoke with your colleague in the South Carolina delegation, Congressman James Clyburn, earlier this week, because he is - has penned a new memoir.

SCOTT: Yes, ma'am.

MARTIN: He talks about his view that race still matters, that race is still a very critical part of the thinking of too many Americans, in a way that works to the detriment of too many people of color, particularly African-Americans - in his parlance, the people who look like me. And I'd like to ask you if you feel that that's true. Do you feel that race still plays a very big role in the consciousness of too many Americans? And what role does it play in your life?

SCOTT: Well, there's no doubt that we, in America, have evolved significantly and substantially over the last 50 years. So as to say that race is a smaller part of our construct than it's been in perhaps in the history of the country, certainly in my lifetime. I will tell you that there is an interesting delineation that I saw on stage when I did my black senators event, bringing all the living senators together.

For those of us in our 40s - myself, Cory Booker and Mo Cowan - all had a conversation about opportunity and access and very little said about the issue of race. Though, without question, race was still a part of the conversation. For those - Mr. Burris and for Carol Moseley Braun, the issue of race was paramount and front and center. So the fact of the matter is that if you're Mr. Clyburn's generation, there's no doubt that the issue of race is more predominant in his thinking than it is in mine or in the two other African-American senators who both were Democrats, but also in their 40s.

MARTIN: So you think it's generational - big generational divide here.

SCOTT: There certainly was, on stage, a divide that was based on generations. Is there still an issue of race in our country? The answer, of course, is yes. Have we made significant progress? The answer, of course, is yes. Can we tell that the issue of race is not only a negative issue of race, but a positive issue of race? So the answer is also yes.

So ultimately, what we have to frame is what conversation we're actually having about race. It is not all negative - significant part of it now is positive. And so you'll find that the issue of race still stirs much emotion, but it's not all a negative vitriol - that there is actually some positive constructive forces at work in race relations as well.

MARTIN: And to the question of poverty, which is what brought us together today...

SCOTT: Yes, ma'am.

MARTIN: Do you feel the similar trajectory there on the question of not just talking about poverty, but actually addressing poverty? I mean, both sides of the aisle - both political perspectives have pointed out that the needle has barely moved on the numbers of who is considered poor in this country. Now, we can argue about what goes into the number and whether it's good number. But do you feel yourself, as a political leader, that we are winning whatever war we are waging on poverty or not?

SCOTT: Michel, you said it. You said it very well. Good question. Whatever war we are waging against poverty - that is really the question that I'm trying to figure out how to answer because the answer is obvious that we need to spend more time figuring out what are the root causes of poverty and not simply spending all of our time on the symptoms of poverty. And that's where my opportunity agenda, I think, comes into focus because ultimately it spends a lot of time examining and trying to eliminate the root cause so that we eliminate the fruit of poverty that we see manifesting in our lives.

And so can both parties spend more time on the issue of poverty? I think the answer is yes. Should we? The answer is absolutely yes. And here's my hope - that after 2014 and before 2016, that the issue of poverty will still be paramount in both parties, that this ought not be an election-year issue. It should not be a election cycle issue. This should be an issue that we help to eliminate because America, with 5 percent of the world's population, we need all hands on deck if we are going to be globally competitive in a fast - very fast-changing world.

MARTIN: That was Senator Tim Scott. He is a Republican from South Carolina. And we reached him at his office on Capitol Hill. Senator Scott, thank you so much for speaking with us. I hope we'll speak again.

SCOTT: I look forward to it, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.