(The Root) — On Wednesday and Thursday, just after the release of the Census Bureau's 2011 findings on income, unemployment and health coverage, members of Congress' Republican Study Committee — including African-American Rep. Allen West from Florida — gathered on Capitol Hill to launch an anti-poverty initiative designed to "publicly advance conservative solutions on poverty" and espouse the view that poverty "is often a symptom of deeper and more intransigent problems, like fatherlessness and community breakdown."
It was a message that frustrated some black leaders with long-standing commitments to addressing the needs of the poor, because of what they saw as a focus on individual versus institutional problems, and a tendency to "blame the victim."
The Daily Caller reports that the message of the summit included a focus on making better use of taxpayer dollars and the rejection of "handouts":
[A] coalition of Republican lawmakers headed by Florida Republican Rep. Steve Southerland heard from grassroots leaders who have successfully confronted the challenges of poverty in their own communities — with a message focused on the establishment of long-term relationships with those in need and a rejection of easy "handouts" without expectations …
"The status quo isn't necessarily working. What they are doing out on the streets working with families, working with communities is making a difference. So that is what we want to learn about, because it is about learning how to save money and ways to better use taxpayer dollar but most importantly it's about figuring out ways we can help people," RSC Chairman Jim Jordan added.
"Compassion without expectations equals enablement," Jordan said, pointing out a line from the conference that had stood out to him.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who earlier this week advocated for the extension of benefits for the long-term unemployed, investments in affordable housing and the passing the American Jobs Act, said the summit "didn't make any sense, because when you look at the policies they [Republicans] are supporting, they have deepened the poverty crisis. And they're not proposing anything to fix it." Speaking explicitly about the Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan's proposed budget, she said, "It would gut our safety nets, of course to pay for more tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires. It just blames the victim."
Tavis Smiley — who, along with Cornel West, hosted town hall meetings in battleground states to push for national attention to poverty during this week's first leg of the duo's Poverty Tour 2.0 — told The Root he was pleased to see the issues addressed by the Republican group, despite his disagreement with its messaging.
"Some of the language is coded, some is color-coded, and the ideas often espoused are wrong," he said, "but at the end of the day, Dr. West and I welcome the conversation, and the country welcomes the conversation."
While Cornel West jokingly proclaimed a "deep commitment to the right of the Republicans to be wrong," he accused the party of wanting "to attribute poverty to bad choices and a culture of dependence, so they end up blaming the victim.
"But I want to connect it to structures and institutional inequality under which decisions are made, so it's important that we engage with them on this issue," he said.
We were unable to reach Rep. West for a comment.
Read more at the Daily Caller.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer.