Six Republican presidential candidates gathered in South Carolina on Saturday to discuss poverty and economic mobility in the United States at the Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity. EIG co-sponsored the forum along with the Jack Kemp Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, and Opportunity Lives. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) moderated the conversation with former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Dr. Ben Carson, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Ohio Governor John Kasich, and Florida Senator Marco Rubio. View the breakdown of the panels at

When interviewed by Time Magazine, EIG senior director for policy and strategy John Lettieri noted, “It says a lot about Speaker Ryan that one of his first major public events features him using his leverage to convene this discussion… It’s a clear sign that he’s trying to lead the GOP in another direction.” Executive director Steve Glickman added in an interview with NBC, “One of the sub currents of the entire presidential primary season has been this deep anxiety of Americans that have led to the attractiveness of populism… It hasn’t lent them to the discussion that is needed.”

Here are five key takeaways from Saturday, and one topic we we’d like to hear more about in the future.


1. Ideas on display

This was the most substantive candidate event of the campaign thus far, with candidates going in depth on a wide range of issues, including tax policy, entrepreneurship, education reform, criminal justice reform, workforce and skills training, and social safety net programs. “We haven’t attacked the fundamental reasons people can’t get out of poverty,” offered Governor Huckabee. The discussion recognized the fact that poverty and opportunity are deeply intertwined with how well the economy functions overall, as we recently noted in Ten Questions Every Candidate Should Answer About Poverty And Opportunity In America. Speaker Ryan put it best: “We’re the only nation founded on this idea: the condition of your birth does not determine the outcome of your life.”

Paul Ryan at the Kemp Forum

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.

2. Entrepreneurship finally in the spotlight

Senator Scott highlighted the link between entrepreneurship, which has been in decline for decades, and the lack of economic opportunity in many communities: “Entrepreneurship, the ability to create and innovate is so powerful for those of us who have been mired in poverty, looking for a way out… You look at the poorest communities across the country, they lack entrepreneurs. How do we fix that?” And Governor John Kasich underscored that new businesses are our job creators, remarking, “small businesses are our heroes because they’re the ones creating jobs for our families.”

kemp forum kasich rubio

(from left to right) Paul Ryan, Tim Scott, John Kasich, and Marco Rubio.

3. Access to capital

Senator Scott discussed the lack of access to capital as a “gorilla standing on the chest of would-be entrepreneurs.” In addition, Governor Christie highlighted the negative impact of the disappearance of community banks for small and new businesses seeking to finance their enterprises. He’s right. Without capital, businesses can’t scale. But the traditional financing models fail to reach many entrepreneurs and businesses throughout the country. Individuals who have fallen on tough times and enterprises located in distressed, high-risk neighborhoods have the hardest time of all.


4. The only lasting solution to poverty is a job 

As Senator Lindsey Graham put most simply in his remarks, “The cure to poverty is a job.” Senator Rubio continued later: “We have to ensure that funds are being given to entities at the state and local level that are empowering people to acquire the skills they need for the jobs that hopefully a dynamic American economy is creating for them.” Dr. Carson added that early intervention is key for placing at-risk individuals on the path to a job: “No question we need to help each other escape from poverty… If we change [functional illiteracy] downstream we have a profound effect upstream.” Unfortunately, good jobs remain scarce in this recovery where low wage jobs have generally replaced the high wage jobs lost during the recession.

tim scott kemp forum

Senator Tim Scott.

5. Opportunities for bipartisanship

From the Earned Income Tax Credit to reducing barriers to entrepreneurship to sentencing reforms for drug crimes, the candidates and moderators spoke passionately about several important issues for which there is a real opportunity to work across the aisle. As Governor Christie stated, “A president’s rhetoric is not going to make somebody take a minimum wage job [if they’re also going to lose their housing benefit as a result]. We need to be practical about it.” Senator Graham used his remarks as an opportunity to remind voters in the audience of the need for candidates to prove they can work with Democrats to improve the country’s economy. And, when it comes to the need for growth and investment in distressed communities, the map is equally red and blue.


(from left to right) Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, and Chris Christie.


 But here’s one thing we didn’t hear


What about geographic incentives?

Jack Kemp was the most visible champion of targeted geographic incentives to jumpstart private sector investment and activity in distressed communities. Such programs, including Enterprise Zones and the New Markets Tax Credit, have enjoyed a long legacy of bipartisan support, but often failed to deliver on their potential to transform communities. We would have loved to hear more about where the candidates stand on such policies, and how, as president, each of them would re-imagine those models to address the growing challenge of geographic inequality.  Governor Bush summed up the sentiment when he stated, “Everybody should have the right to rise up in this country. No one should have limits on their aspirations. If we become a society where if you’re born poor, you’re stuck, and if you’re wealthy, you’re gonna stay there, that’s a society that will be in decline.”

The Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity offered a different tone than previous presidential events as speakers discussed their ideas and solutions in detail, and we at EIG look forward to engaging other candidates to get their views on these issues in the coming months.

Some quotes may be paraphrased for clarity or brevity.



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