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Rubio: Small Government Can Help Fix Economic Inequality

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, shown here at an event in Washington last month, spoke with NPR's Morning Edition about the country's economic challenges. (AP)

Sen. Marco Rubio, a potential 2016 GOP presidential contender, is concerned about issues of access to affordable education, availability of job training and prospects for economic mobility. While shunning the "income inequality" language of the left, he insists that those problems need to be viewed through the lens of limited government.

"At its core, conservatism is not an anti-government movement, and it's not a no-government movement," Rubio tells Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep in the first of a two-part interview today.

"The conservative movement is about government playing its important yet limited role, and about not falling into the trap of believing that every problem has an exclusive government answer for it," the Florida Republican says.

Just last week, Rubio, 43, co-sponsored a bill with Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner to set up a system for federal student loan repayment based on a borrower's income.

While many conservatives argue that federal aid perpetuates dependency, others, such as Rubio, want to help struggling families without disowning their core ideology.

In May, for example, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, another possible 2016 candidate, warned against an economy where some people are permanently on top and others stuck at the bottom. While he offered no rhetoric about "the 1 percent," Bush was referencing some of the same underlying concerns.

Rubio steers away from criticizing unequal incomes, preferring instead to focus on unequal opportunity. "If you're the cashier at Burger King, of course you make less than the manager or even the CEO," Rubio tells NPR. "The issue is whether you're stuck being a cashier for the rest of your life.

"So, what we need to do is figure out, what is it that's holding people back? And try to do what we can to address it within the confines of what limited government should be doing," he says.

Take a single mother with two children who's struggling to support her family on $10 an hour: "[There] are things that government can do to incentivize the creation of innovations in education that are accessible to people like [her], because if you have to work full time and raise a family, you can't just drop everything and go into a traditional four-year college program," he says.

"There are things that government can do through our tax code to allow you to keep more of the money that you make, particularly when you look at the cost of child care," he says.

Asked why he specifically mentions single mothers, Rubio responds, "Because I know a bunch of them."

"There are millions of women who are trapped in lower-paying jobs and don't have the skills for a higher-paying job, and don't have the money or the time to access the higher education that they need for a better job," he says.

"So, for the rest of their lives, they're stuck making $10 an hour, and their kids, as a result, don't have opportunities either," Rubio says.

Many conservatives see government support as only reinforcing a dependency and incentivizing the father's absence. Rubio, however, insists that often it's not the mother's fault. "The man has abandoned her, or he was abusive."

"The success sequence in America says you get an education, you get a good job, you get married, you have children," Rubio says. "People who do those four things have an incredible level of economic stability.

"But there are millions of people who aren't going to have one or any of those things," he says. "They are not going to have an equal opportunity to succeed unless something happens to equalize the situation.

"The question for those of us in public policy is: What can a limited government do to become a part of that solution — not the exclusive solution — but a part of that solution?" Rubio contends.

"People should be allowed to package learning no matter how they acquired it," he says. "Their life experience, their work experience, free online courses, one course at a community college, another at another community college — you should be able to package all that cumulative learning into the equivalent of a degree that allows you to be employed."

In the second part of our conversation with Rubio, on Tuesday's Morning Edition, we'll hear from him about immigration and his presidential ambitions.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Some Republicans are seeking their own ways to address income inequality.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

They do not use that phrase which is associated with a left-leaning occupy movement.

MONTAGNE: Nor have they taken up the campaign against the 1 percent. But they are talking of the gap between the wealthy and the poor.

INSKEEP: Those Republicans include Florida Senator Marco Rubio who's considering a presidential run.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: The real challenge of the 21st century is we are not creating enough of those higher-paying jobs that the 21st century makes possible, and we have too many people that don't have the skills for those jobs.

INSKEEP: Now Republican rhetoric in recent years has focused on getting government out of people's economic lives. The Tea in Tea Party stands for taxed enough already. Many conservatives argue federal aid just creates dependency. Without disowning those ideas some Republicans say they want to help struggling families. In May, Jeb Bush warned against an economy where some people are permanently on top and others are stuck at the bottom. Senator Rubio has been proposing legislation with colleagues from both parties. He says he wants to make it easier to pay back student loans or for people to qualify for jobs without a college degree. When we met in Senator Rubio's office, he gave his definition of the problem.

RUBIO: It's not income inequality per se - income inequality - you know, the best way I would describe income inequality versus opportunity equality is if you're the cashier at Burger King of course you make less than the manager or even the CEO. The issue is not that. The issue is whether you're stuck being a cashier for the rest of your life or do you have a real opportunity to improve yourself so that you can get a better paying job and maybe even not work for Burger King but somewhere else. And so what we need to do is figure out, well, what is it that's holding people back from being able to do that, and try to do what we can to address it within the confines of what a limited government should be doing. And that's what we have focused on.

INSKEEP: Now the thing about limited government gets to something that's interesting for me. Does the Republican Party have a special problem in trying to focus on helping that cashier, say, because the party ideologically or philosophically believes that the government really can't do much to target economically specific groups of people?

RUBIO: I don't think that's an accurate assessment of their - I think at its core, conservatism is not an anti-government movement, and it's not a no government movement. It's not an anarchist movement. The conservative movement is about government playing its important, yet limited, role and about not falling into the trap of believing that every problem has an exclusive government answer for it - recognizing that much of what would happen in our lives and much of what determines the direction of our country are things that occur outside of government. They're things that occur inside the home. They're things that occur within society. They're decisions that individuals make, and so forth. I mean, but there is a role for government to play. And while it is not - in my mind - the predominant role, it is still a significant and important one. And it needs to play that role in a positive way.

INSKEEP: But you know what I'm suggesting - a lot of people in the Republican Party are skeptical of how much good economic intervention from the government can do, particularly in the lives of individuals.

RUBIO: And I understand that's the way the debate's been framed for much of the 20th century. I don't accept those constricts for that debate. I think in the 21st century - let's look at a real-life story, right? If you're a single mother with a limited education - maybe you dropped out of high school or that's all you have - you've been abandoned by the father of your children, and you're struggling to raise two kids on a $10 an hour job. Government has a limited, but important, role to play. For example, there are things government can do to incentivize the creation of innovations in education that are accessible to people like you because if you have to work full-time and raise a family, you can't just drop everything and go into a traditional four-year college program. There are things government can do through our tax code to allow you to keep more of the money that you make, particularly when you look at the cost of childcare or just the general cost of raising a family.

INSKEEP: When you picked specific groups of people you wanted to help, why did single mothers make that list?

RUBIO: Because I know a bunch of them. And I have talked about this for years. In fact, I don't just pick it now. If you go back to 2005, when I was designated to be the next speaker of the Florida House, in my speech that's the example that I used. I used the story of a young single mother who wanted everything that had gone wrong for her to go right for her children. Those aren't the only people struggling in America but they are disproportionately. There are millions of women who are trapped in lower paying jobs and don't have the skills for a higher-paying job and don't have the money or the time to access the higher education they need for a better job. And so for the rest of their lives they're stuck making $10 an hour and their kids, as a result, don't have opportunities either.

INSKEEP: Is there sympathy for single moms but also skepticism towards solutions because a lot of people think, well, actually, just the father ought to be there. And any help you give the single mom just allows that father to not to be there.

RUBIO: Well, look, that would be great. That would be ideal. But sometimes - many times that's not the mother's fault. The man has abandoned her or he was abusive. The fact of the matter is yes, the ideal setting - and they would be the first ones to tell you that - we know that there's a success sequence. The success sequence in America says you get an education, you get a good job, you get married, you have children. And people that do those four things have an incredible chance of economic stability. But there are millions of people that aren't going to have one or any of those four things. They are not going to have an equal opportunity to succeed unless something happens to equalize the situation. And then the question for those of us in public policy is what can a limited government do to be a part of that solution? Not the exclusive solution but a part of that solution.

INSKEEP: I was listening to a political analyst, Amy Walter, the other day. She was talking about Hillary Clinton who was having some trouble at the moment because Clinton was being perceived as being out of touch. She said something about leaving the White House and being dead broke. Amy Walter, the political analyst, said that would be a problem for Hillary Clinton if she ever faced a Republican Party that was itself in touch with the middle class. And she didn't think that was the case. Do you think that the Republican Party has had trouble connecting with ordinary people?

RUBIO: Well, look, I think that too often times - and I've heard others say this point as well - that we focus solely on job creators. And that's, you know, that's important.

INSKEEP: Business owners?

RUBIO: But most people aren't employers, they're employees. But I also think that the real challenge for both parties is I think neither party has made the transition to the 21st century. We're still having 20th century debates. It's an argument about how much or how little we need to invest in higher education and not enough on the fact that our higher education system is completely antiquated. If you are 30-year-old with 2 children who needs to go back to school, how do you do that in a cost-effective way while you still work and raise your family? I think that in the 21st century people should be allowed to package learning no matter how they acquired it - through life experience, work experience, free online courses, one course at community college, another community college. You should be able to package all that cumulative learning into the equivalent of a degree that allows you to be employed. I wish we spent more time on those sorts of things.

INSKEEP: That's Florida Senator Marco Rubio. We also asked him about immigration and his presidential ambitions. And we will hear more of our conversation tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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