Washington (CNN) – Sen. Marco Rubio declared the last 50 years in the war on poverty a failure on Wednesday, drawing a considerable line between his view on how to fight poverty and those of his Democratic colleagues.
In his policy address, which fell on the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's call for an "all-out war on human poverty," Rubio bashed Democratic proposals to raise the minimum wage and lobbied for the states, not the federal government, to control anti-poverty programs.
The Republican from Florida and possible GOP 2016 presidential contender said his poverty stance was grounded in the idea that government spending is not the answer to "healing the wounds of poverty."
"I am proposing that we turn over Washington's anti-poverty programs – and the trillions spent on them – to the states," Rubio said, symbolically delivering his speech in the U.S. Capitol's ornate Lyndon B. Johnson Room. "America is still the land of opportunity for most, but it is not a land of opportunity for all. If we are to remain an exceptional nation, we must close this gap in opportunity."
Rubio was seen as a Republican rising star when he was swept into the Senate in 2010 on the back of tea party fervor and excitement. But his support of comprehensive immigration reform – plans that passed the Senate last June but have since languished in the House – have led some in his party to sour on him.
A source close to the Senator told CNN that Rubio had hoped to deal with poverty in 2013 – before immigration dominated his agenda. The source also insists that his focus on poverty is a continuation of what he talked about when he was the speaker of the Florida legislature for two years.
While Rubio did not specify which federal programs he would hand over to the states, he did propose replacing the programs with what he called a "revenue neutral Flex Fund." This fund, Rubio said, would allow states to use the federal money to "design and fund creative initiatives that address the factors behind inequality of opportunity."
Despite the fact that Rubio billed his proposal as "the most fundamental change to how the federal government fights poverty and encourages income mobility" since Johnson's call 50 years ago, some poverty experts said Rubio's plans were neither revolutionary nor new.
"As far as returning welfare back to the states, that is definitely something Republicans have talked about before," said Rachel Sheffield, a policy analyst at the conservative think-tank, the Heritage Foundation. "This is definitely not something that is a foreign concept to Republicans."
And the politics of poverty programs are not totally problem-free for Rubio, either. Republicans in the last few months have been outspoken on altering anti-poverty programs like unemployment insurance, food stamps and Medicaid.
Democrats, on the other hand, have kept their foot down on the issue, partly because they believe it is a winning issue in the 2014 midterm election. President Barack Obama has called income inequality the "defining challenge of our time" and Democrats in Congress have pressed to increase the minimum wage and extend unemployment insurance.
Rubio also proposed rolling back the Earned Income Tax Credit – a tax credit that provides a rebate to the low and moderate income individuals with jobs. In its place, Rubio said he plans to propose legislation with "a federal wage enhancement for qualifying low-wage jobs."
"This would allow an unemployed individual to take a job that pays, say, $18,000 a year – which on its own is not enough to make ends meet – but then receive a federal enhancement to make the job a more enticing alternative to collecting unemployment insurance," Rubio said.
The Earned Income Tax Credit first became policy in 1975, when Republican President Gerald Ford signed legislation that approved the rebate. Multiple Republican presidents – Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush – expanded the program during their administrations.
Liberal groups, like the pro-Democratic American Bridge, seized on Rubio's speech, calling it hypocritical given the fact that Rubio and other Republicans voted on Tuesday to not extended long-term unemployment benefits.
"His refusal to help the unemployed is actually emblematic of conservatives' empty rhetoric on poverty," the group said in an email to reporters. "Until Rubio and the Republicans come up with any actual ideas beyond their endless calls for more tax cuts and repealing Obamacare, the real war on poverty in America remains their endless attacks on the middle and working class."
As Rubio regularly does in speeches, the first term Senator pulled from his family's history to bolster his understanding of poverty, stating that his family came to the United States from Cuba with "virtually nothing" and spent their first few years in their new home working "long hours for little pay." Yet Rubio said his parents ended up "living the American Dream."
"My parents' story, of two everyday people who were given the chance to work their way into a better life, it's a common one here in America," Rubio said. "It's a defining national characteristic rooted in a principle that was at the core of our nation's birth: that every single human being has a God given right to live freely and pursue happiness."
Rubio did not only use economic policy to bolster his stance on economic policy. The Florida Republican also said marriage is the "greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty."
CNN's Dana Bash contributed to this report.