Poverty has generally been seen as an issue belonging to the compassionate Democrats. They seized the "caring" mantle way back when President Lyndon Johnson launched the "War on Poverty," amid great fanfare, in the 1960s. Just one problem: poverty has been winning.
But now, Rep. Jackie Walorski, Indiana's Congresswoman from the state's second district, says it's time for Republicans to step boldly into the arena, but with fresh, new–and winning–strategies that actually lift people out of poverty, as opposed to simply mailing them monthly checks.
As ranking member of the House's Worker and Family Support Subcommittee, which functions under the umbrella of the Ways and Means Committee, Walorski is well-placed to steer the debate and have an effect. "I've been looking at the issue of poverty since I came to Congress," she tells IWF. "How do we break the cycle of poverty and build a bridge out of poverty? A lot of the poverty we see today is the result of the failure of big Democratic social programs."
She continues, "Republicans have got to embrace this issue. We're going to have to look at it. We've got to be bold, come to the table and say that the country has reduced millions of people into nothing but a number. Government has no idea who they are or what they really need. Nobody cares about doing anything, beyond sending out checks. Nobody cares, or measures, whether these people are getting on their feet, getting a second chance. Where is the solution in all this?"
In 2016 Walorski served as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee's Nutrition Subcommittee, when it considered employment and training requirements for those who receive help from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps. A supporter of work requirements, Walorski stressed that "a job is the first step for anyone trying to move up the economic ladder and out of poverty."
The night before they were to go to Romania, they got word that the organization they planned to work for had folded. "We had already sold everything," Walorski recalls. "We had already transitioned out. So, we went to Romania the next day with one phone number in our pocket."
Although Democrats are almost universally outraged at the prospect of requiring able-bodied SNAP recipients without dependent children to work or train for work, Walorski remains a staunch supporter. “State SNAP E&T (employment and training) programs exist to help SNAP recipients find job opportunities and develop valuable skills so they can get back to work and back on their feet," she said during the hearing. Job training was a cornerstone of the Better Way to Fight Poverty program. Walorski was a key figure in developing a Better Way, which was unveiled by then-Speaker Paul Ryan that year. Walorski, by the way, was critical of the Trump administration's early on proposal to send boxes of food, thus reducing expenses, to SNAP recipients.
Walorski, 55, grew up in South Bend, the daughter of a firefighter who was also a small business owner, and a mother who worked as a butcher in a grocery store. She attended Liberty College and transferred to and graduated from Taylor University, a nondenominational Christian college in Indiana, with a B. A. in Communications.
Walorski now lives in Jimtown, with husband Dean, a music teacher. She comes across as direct, informally introducing herself as "Jackie." Even talking on the phone, you get the distinct impression that this is the sort of lady who has a firm handshake. Her engagement with the issue of poverty didn't begin when she was elected to public office. It started when Jackie and Dean took it upon themselves to go to Romania, where they lived for four years, to serve as missionaries.
Jackie Walorski's real passion is getting her party to take the lead in dealing with poverty and issues that involve families. "For a long time, we were painted as non-compassionate, not caring about people, only caring about corporate world, and that’s just simply not true."
"My husband and I got married in 1995 and we were kind of yuppies, unattached, had great jobs, and then our pastor at our church had asked us if we would consider doing a two-year missionary stint to help an organization ministering and working with kids that lived in the sewers, below ground, who were victims of that whole Ceausescu period when Ceausescu was the dictator of Romania," she recalls.
"We thought and prayed about it and we felt like, yeah, that’s something we could do," she continues. "We could give back. So, we sold our house and really everything that we had. We transitioned out of our jobs, raised the money and got involved with this organization, but the night before we flew out the organization folded."
Some couples might have thought, "Well, so much for that Romanian thing. Can we get our jobs back?" Not Jackie and Dean. "We had already sold everything. We had already transitioned out. We already had the money. We were ready to go the next morning. So, we went to Romania with one phone number in our pocket." The phone number was that of a friend who spoke a little English.
"When we landed there, it was walking back in time," Walorski remembers. "It was just surreal. There were several older guys who were guards at the Bucharest airport and they had these old Russian machineguns and old gray uniforms. I’m six feet tall and my husband is 6’6”. When we walked off the plane, those guys said something to each other and laughed. After we learned the language, we realized that what they said to each other when they saw us was,' The giants are here.'"
"We helped set up a leadership training institute for young people, to teach them problem-solving skills and English, two things they needed to be successful. But we also got involved with medical supplies for children in Romania at a burn unit. There was only one burn unit in the country for 23 million people. And a lot of the kids were burned to pieces, burned to oblivion, on purpose, because they were used as beggars in the streets. There is no lack of need in a place like Romania and we really hit the ground running. As soon as our feet hit the ground, we began to get involved with all kinds of organizations, all kinds of things."
While in Romania, Walorski, who with her husband founded International Impact, designed to get medical supplies to needy children, received a frantic call from a doctor. He said that the Romanian government had shut off the supply of antibiotics and children in his burn unit were dying. As fate would have it, Walorski had a solution: the Eli Lilly and Company is headquartered in Indianapolis. Walorski placed a call for help to a fellow Hoosier, and the company worked with Walorski to get the life-saving antibiotics to the hospital in Romania.
In Indiana, Walorski sponsored a voter ID law that was widely challenged until the U.S. Supreme Court upheld it. She proposed legislation that would have made either the death penalty or life without parole mandatory for anyone convicted of killing a cop.
Before entering politics, Walorski had a variety of jobs: reporter for the CBS affiliate in South Bend, executive director of a county humane society, college official, and membership director of the St. Joseph County Chamber of Commerce. In 2004 she was elected to the Indiana state House of Representatives. While serving there, Walorski sponsored a voter ID law that was widely challenged until the U.S. Supreme Court upheld it. She proposed legislation that would have made either the death penalty or life without parole mandatory for anyone convicted of killing a cop.
She first ran for U.S. Congress in 2010, when she was narrowly defeated by then-Rep. Joe Donnelly, the incumbent. She ran again in 2012 and won in a close race (Donnelly had moved onto the Senate). She has a conservative voting record and put forward proposals (such as doubling the death gratuity for military families) that appeal to those with conservative values.
Although supportive of President Trump, Walorski did have one area of concern: tariffs, which could be particularly detrimental to businesses in her district. “I support President Trump’s goal of stopping China’s unfair trade practices," she has said, "but we need to do so in a way that does not harm American farmers, manufacturers, and workers." She joined with her good friend Rep. Ron Kind, Democrat from Wisconsin, to introduce the Import Tax Relief Act, aimed at establishing a process to exclude some companies from tariffs. Walorski, by the way, believes that even in a House controlled by Democrats, it is possible to accomplish good things if you're willing to reach across the aisle and "don't care who gets credit."
"We are not just looking for number–to be able to say, 'Oh, we have 50 new women,'" Walorski says. "But rather we want to say that we have 50 new members who are women who are adding an incredible amount of strength and wisdom to policy."
Walorski would like to see more Republican women elected to Congress–but she doesn't view it as just a numbers game. "We are not just looking for a number–to be able to say, 'Oh, we have 50 new women,'" she says. "But rather we want to say that we have 50 new members who are women who are adding an incredible amount of strength and wisdom to policy." She thinks that women bring a particular passion, insights and stick-to-itness and is optimistic that more Republican women will be elected to political offices soon.
Jackie Walorski's real passion is getting her party to take the lead in dealing with poverty and issues that involve families. "For a long time, we were painted as non-compassionate, not caring about people, only caring about corporate world, and that’s just simply not true. We need to make sure we promote good commonsense conservative solutions. We can’t just chalk this off to the Democrats and say they have all the solutions. They don’t. They have broken promises. They have huge social programs that don’t work. If it did work, we wouldn’t have millions and millions of people unemployed. We’ve got more people working in our country right now because of conservative policies. If we can make this link between healthy families, jobs, American dream, connecting all those things, I think that we set our nation on a correct course."
In a way, it's the same Jackie as the one who went to Romania with only one phone number and buckets of idealism and drive. "I advocate for people," she says. "I fight for people. It’s what gets me up in the morning." It’s that kind of spirit that is making Walorski a leader in Congress.