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It's Time to Ask GOP Presidential Hopefuls Tough Questions on the Economy

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 26/10/2015 Anna Chu

For the past few years, news article after news article lamented the state of America's working and middle class families and rising inequality. From January 2014 to October 2015, the New York Times had approximately 1,470 articles that included discussions about income inequality. Even the more conservative Wall Street Journal got in on the action, reporting that inequality was damaging the U.S. economy. This coverage is in sync with public opinion: 65 percent of Americans think that the gap between the rich and the poor in this country is a problem that needs to be addressed now.

With all this concern concentrated on the challenges facing working and middle class families, it's no surprise that many GOP presidential candidates have oriented their rhetoric in that direction. Jeb Bush touts about the "need to create economic opportunity for every American, especially middle class families and those trying to rise out of poverty." Meanwhile, Marco Rubio bemoans how families "see their cost of living rising while their paychecks remain stagnant."

But despite all the professed concern about working and middle-class Americans, the majority of the Republican presidential candidates are still peddling much of the same old top-down ideas that they claim would grow the economy. Both Jeb and Donald Trump have proposed tax plans that would disproportionately benefit the wealthiest few. Jeb's plan would give the biggest share of tax cuts--11.6 percent--to the top 1 percent of earners, compared to 2.9 percent for those in the middle. Trump's plan is even worse--21.6 percent of the cuts would go to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, compared to 7.2 percent for middle class earners.

At the same time that GOP candidates are proposing plans benefitting the rich, they oppose ideas that would boost working and middle-class Americans. For example, both Jeb and Rubio oppose raising the federal minimum wage, which today is just $7.25 per hour. And even thoughRubio acknowledged that "you can't live on $10 an hour," he still opposes raising the federal minimum wage.

The combination of these ideas would not only fail to grow the economy, but it would increase inequality and have disastrous impacts for ordinary Americans. A growing body of research shows that tax cuts for the rich do not grow the economy; they simply increase inequality. A review of economic research by the Tax Policy Center showed that unpaid-for tax cuts for the rich have little positive impact on economic growth. Instead, these tax cuts help those who already have capital. Meanwhile, Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez found a strong correlation between lower tax rates and higher levels of income inequality across 18 developed countries.

While tax cuts for the rich would make the rich even richer, the failure to raise the minimum wage would lower the floor even more for workers at the bottom. In fact, the declining value of the real minimum wage is a big driver of inequality, and the federal minimum wage is worth far less today than it was in 1968. If the federal minimum wage had kept pace with inflation since 1968, it would be worth approximately $10.88 today.

Rubio and Jeb's staunch opposition to raising the federal minimum wage would make matters even worse for today's workers. If the next president to occupy the White House opposed raising the federal minimum wage over two terms, the real value of the minimum wage would fall to $5.67 by 2025--the lowest in 70 years. A further fall in wages is the last thing that Americans and the economy need. Instead, we need better wages for working and middle class families, wages that would be spent back in the community and create real economic growth.

With the economy dominating voters' minds, the GOP candidates need to answer hard questions about why they still back policies that would increase inequality, hurt ordinary Americans, and impede economic growth. The primary debates are a great venue for these discussions, but the past two debates have instead been dominated by ideological rants about immigration and Planned Parenthood. In fact, during the first GOP debate, the Republican presidential candidates did not mention the middle class once. During the second debate, they mentioned the middle class a mere three times.

CNBC, which is hosting the next GOP debate in Colorado, can correct this mistake and question the GOP candidates about their economic plans--from their trickle-down tax plans to their staunch opposition to raising the minimum wage. It's far overdue. The American people are waiting and watching.

Anna Chu is the vice president of policy and research at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

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