For the sake of argument, assume the flurry of Republican anti-poverty proposals represent a mix of well-intentioned ideas worthy of attention and cuts to government services wrapped in soothing rhetoric. Here are a few guidelines for telling which is which.
Does the proposal call for less government spending?
Depending on whether you measure government social spending in dollars per person or as a share of the economy, the U.S. spends either just above or just below the average for developed countries. So the problem facing U.S. policy makers isn't that we're spending too much, but how to make that money work better. Be wary of proposals entailing less spending, now or in the future.
If the proposal calls for more flexibility, then flexibility for whom?
The value of devolving decision-making power, taking it out of the hands of Washington bureaucrats, depends on who receives that power. If a proposal calls for giving individuals more power to make choices, as with a universal basic income or increased tax credits, that can be a helpful change.
But if a proposal calls for giving more flexibility to states, as with Senator Marco Rubio's call yesterday to turn all federal anti-poverty programs into a single fund for states, then the goal isn't greater personal flexibility. Rather, it's abdicating responsibility to states -- which have fewer resources than the federal government to analyze, implement and oversee new policies, or measure their effects.
The nature and causes of poverty aren't all that different from state to state; what differs is the political will and the policy capacity to address it. So a plan calling for blanket state autonomy, with no conditions attached for ensuring a baseline level of success, looks a lot like a federal retreat.
Have we seen this same proposal in a different guise?
A good indication that an idea isn't really about reducing poverty is if it was pushed previously with a different rationale. For example, cuts to unemployment insurance may be pitched today as a way to wean people off government dependency, reinvigorating the will to work.
But if those same cuts were earlier championed as a good way to trim the deficit, then the goal probably isn't fighting poverty. It's finding a better message.
Does the proposal focus on problems that government can reasonably hope to address?
Rubio devoted part of his speech on poverty yesterday to the perennial conservative argument that wedlock can do more to reduce poverty than government. "The greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82 percent," Rubio said. "But it isn’t a government spending program. It’s called marriage."
Even if you accept that causality -- and the Atlantic's Emily Badger offered compelling arguments this week not to -- the next question should be whether the problem in question is one the government can remedy. Programs that fund public service announcements promoting marriage may seem appealing, but sometimes a problem that seems to be about not having enough money is in fact a problem about not having enough money.
Has the proposal been tried elsewhere? How did it work out?
One of the advantages of considering new U.S. anti-poverty programs in 2014 is that there are plenty of experiences elsewhere to copy. European countries have been desperately experimenting to combat an increase in persistent joblessness, under both left- and right-wing governments. Republicans looking for new ideas should be pressed to explain how those ideas worked elsewhere. And if their ideas haven't been tried elsewhere, there may be a reason why.
As I wrote on Tuesday, the data show that Republicans are right about this much: U.S. anti-poverty spending isn't getting the results it should, compared with other developed countries. That alone compels us to consider whatever alternatives Republicans might come up with. But their own past behavior means they should expect skepticism.
(Christopher Flavelle is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)