COLUMBIA, S.C. — Jack Kemp was a man ahead of his time–a conservative who authentically partnered with people from low-income communities of all races to find tangible solutions to difficult challenges. Kemp passed away in 2009, but his spirit and memory were alive as leading GOP presidential candidates gathered here at a Kemp Forum Saturday to discuss solutions to poverty and expanding opportunities for those battling poverty, drug addiction, homelessness and other struggles.
“People don’t want to be reminded of injuries to be avoided, they want to be reminded of victories that are possible,” advised Forum speaker Bob Woodson, an African-American activist who has been on the front lines of fighting poverty for more than 40 years. The crowd of an estimated 2,000 people witnessed a historic gathering–the first time that poverty had become a mainstream issue within the GOP primary process, according to Woodson.
During the 2012 campaign, then-vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan asked Woodson to lead the lawmaker on site visits across the country to grassroots organizations who are achieving success in their quest to heal and empower. The visits continued in the ensuing years after the election, culminating in a documentary series called Comeback released by Opportunity Lives. Comeback was featuring in opening remarks at the Kemp Forum.
“We’ve been fighting the War on Poverty for 50 years now. I don’t think you can call it anything but a stalemate,” said House Speaker Ryan, who argued that while government can be supply lines in the war on poverty, it should not be on the front lines. By spending trillions of government dollars on anti-poverty measures, Ryan said this effectively crowds out civil society leaders, who are better able to take a holistic approach.
“Government can give you a sandwich, but government cannot give you a hug,” Mike Huckabee echoed. “Sometimes people need affirmation.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie shared similar thoughts:”The federal government, they swing a meat axe rather than a scalpel on this issue.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush spoke of the difficulty of starting a business when basic needs are unmet.
“You can’t be an entrepreneur if you are in a community with increasing crime rates,” Bush said.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich called for better mental health care, a key component in reducing poverty, homelessness and incarceration. “It is absolutely immoral that we are locking up the bipolar and the schizophrenic,” he said
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio spoke of the need to modernize education and regulatory approaches to better fit an information-based economy.
“We have to address our outdated government” Rubio said, calling for improved occupational training and licensing approaches.
Carly Fiorina had confirmed but was unable to attend due to traveling issues. GOP primary frontrunners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz were invited but declined to attend.
The Forum was co-hosted by Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., the first black senator elected in the Deep South since Reconstruction. Republicans have historically struggled with what observers call an “empathy gap,” or the perception that GOP leaders care less for average Americans than Democrats do.
“People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” Scott said. Now the question is whether the Party of Lincoln is able to heed this counsel.
The Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity was held in the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center and was sponsored by Opportunity Lives with the American Enterprise Institute and the Economic Innovation Group. Watch panelists former Bush, Christie, and Dr. Ben Carson below:
Carrie Sheffield is the founder of Bold. She is passionate about storytelling to empower and connect others.