Washington, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) delivered an address at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) entitled “Constructive Conservatism: A Bottom-Up Approach to Tackling Poverty.” Portman outlined the need for constructive conservatism and called for more targeted, results-oriented measures to combat poverty in our communities.

For a summary of Portman’s efforts to combat poverty, click here.

Excerpts of the speech can be found below and the full remarks as prepared for delivery can be found here. Video of the remarks can be viewed here.

“Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson went before the American people and said that he was ready to take our country to war…This was to be a war on poverty…And yet, fifty years later, there is a sense among many, even some on the left, that the war on poverty has been lost.
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“We see the proof of that failure in the 47 million Americans who are living in poverty even today, even here in the richest country in the world, even though according to some measures we have spent over $15 trillion on poverty reduction programs over the last five decades. In fact, according to one report, so-called ‘deep poverty’—those making less than 50 percent of the poverty line—recently ‘has reached its highest level on record,’ 6.6 percent, or more than 20 million Americans.

“Turning that tide is going to take more than minimum wage increases and unemployment benefit extensions. It will take more than nice speeches and promises of hope and change. Those of us in this room have some pretty good ideas about where we should start to take action.

“We need to create the environment where business and jobs will grow again and, in an increasingly competitive global economy, we need to move urgently to prevent America from falling behind. I believe that will require structural reforms: overhauling all the basic institutions of our economy including our tax code, trade policies, regulatory framework, healthcare system, energy policy, and certainly our broken education system that is failing so many in poor neighborhoods. It’s all here in the Senate GOP Jobs for America plan that I authored.

“We need to do all these things—and more—but we also have to understand that while they are necessary, they are not sufficient.

“I call this approach ‘constructive conservatism’…So instead of abdicating the field, we should be applying conservative principles to the problems of our day in a pragmatic, commonsense way, tackling issues from the bottom up instead of the top down, applying proven methods that have worked before and will work again. There are several key elements to such a constructive conservative approach at the federal level.

“We know, of course, that drug abuse and drug addiction bedevils communities rich and poor, and a big house and a nice car does not make one immune to drug abuse. But I can tell you that drug abuse is particularly devastating to communities that are already vulnerable, where unemployment rates are high, where people don’t have the skills or the training they need to get a good job, whether it’s the poor Appalachian counties in southern Ohio that have been devastated by the prescription drug epidemic, or the poor neighborhoods in our inner cities that are now reeling from the surge in heroin, in overdoses, and in violence: the gangs and the crime that builds up around the drug trade.

“Washington is ill-equipped to respond to what’s happening on the ground. States have been called the laboratory of Democracy; these coalitions and other non-profits are the laboratory of drug addiction treatment.

“One area where we are doing that and where we have seen the most progress on addiction treatment is in reentry for those leaving the criminal justice system and returning home. 

“We also cannot forget about the vulnerable kids who are growing up in difficult situations today, particularly when it comes to the horrible crime of sex trafficking.

“Help people break the grip of addiction. Help them leave prison behind and get the skills they need to work a job they can be proud of. Help them build a better life for themselves, for their families, and for their communities. Help the most vulnerable young people among us. You do that, and we could make a real difference in the lives of millions of Americans who are trapped in poverty.

“It’s time to put ourselves back on a path where community institutions and community leadership is our foundation, where government is in support of approaches that work, not dictating solutions from above. Every step we take down that path from here, every success we have, we aren’t just saving lives, we are restoring the hopes and the dreams of millions today and millions more yet unborn. And that is something worth fighting for.”