Fifty years ago, Republicans and Democrats came together to enshrine in law the principle that all of us, regardless of race, color, or national origin, are created equal. Because of that, today America is a better, more tolerant and more welcoming place than it has ever been.

So why is it that so many black families still feel left behind? A quarter of African-Americans live below the poverty line, even with federal programs like food stamps and housing subsidies, and the supplemental poverty rate for African-Americans is nearly double the rate for other Americans.

Democrats have long had the opportunity to govern in African-American communities. But the Democrats’ solutions amount to little more than throwing money at the problem and walking away. And in cities where left-wing solutions have been tried over and over again – like Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore and Oakland – blacks are moving out to places like Dallas and Houston.

The fact is, it’s Republicans – not Democrats – who are truly offering black Americans the hope of a better life for themselves and their children.

For too long, we Republicans have been content to lose the black vote, because we found that we could win elections without it. But when we gave up on trying to win the support of African-Americans, we lost our moral legitimacy as the party of Lincoln—as the party of equal opportunity for all.

This is no more apparent anywhere than in Texas, where we’ve focused on creating an economic climate that allows anyone to work hard and achieve the American Dream. And while we haven’t eliminated black poverty in Texas, we have made meaningful progress. In New York, the supplemental poverty rate for blacks is 26 percent. In California, it’s 30 percent. In Washington, D.C., it’s 33 percent. In Texas, it’s just 20 percent.

Creating Opportunity for All

The only true cure for poverty is a job, and Democratic policies have made it too hard for the poor to find work. Just this week, President Obama announced new regulations for overtime pay that will make it costlier for companies to hire full-time employees. Companies will respond to these rules by hiring fewer people.

My first priority as president will be to reignite the engine of American economic growth, by reforming the tax code and requiring federal agencies to adhere to a strict regulatory budget. A growing economy will give those at the bottom of the ladder more opportunities to climb, just as it has in Texas.

Many poor Americans want to leave welfare and rejoin the workforce, but they are hammered by rules that often require them to earn less money, after taxes, in a full-time job than they would earn if they didn’t work and remained on welfare.

 

If I am elected president, I will send to Congress a welfare reform bill that will take the money we already spend on non-health care-related anti-poverty programs and split it into two parts. The first part will be an expanded and reformed version of the Earned Income Tax Credit, so that anyone with a job can live above the poverty line. The second part will consist of a block grant, so that states can care for their safety-net populations in the manner that best serves their residents.

Laying the Foundation for Success

Income inequality isn’t just about how many dollars you earn. It’s also about how far each dollar can take you after you’ve paid taxes, rent, tuition and grocery bills. And it all starts with the level of education you receive.

In too many parts of this country, black students are trapped in failing schools where union bosses look out for themselves at the expense of the kids. This matters because kids who graduate from high school typically make 50 percent more than those who don’t.

In Texas, we made sure that the kids come first. Texas’ high school graduation rate went from ranking 27th in the country in 2002 to 2nd in the country in 2013. Our graduation rate for African-Americans was number one in the nation: 13 points higher than the national average. We did this all without No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top or Common Core.

It’s a fallacy to assume that the vastly different student populations across the country can be adequately educated with one-size-fits-all policies. We need to empower state lawmakers, school boards and parents to implement policies that address the specific needs of their students, and keep schools accountable and efficient.

We also have to tackle the exorbitant price of a college education. One of the biggest barriers today to entering the middle class for all Americans is the high cost of a college degree. A four-year degree at the typical private college now costs more than $170,000. The median home price in America is $205,000. We are literally asking poor students to mortgage their future in order to gain a college degree.

This must end. In Texas, I challenged our state universities to offer a four-year college degree for less than $10,000. Many thought it would be impossible to drive tuition and fees that low. But today, 13 Texas universities have reached that target. Additionally, we are on the cusp of an online revolution in higher education—but only if the federal government rolls back the rules that make it almost impossible for students to gain accredited bachelor’s degrees achieved with online instruction.

Second Chances

Another issue we took on was the prevalence of incarceration for non-violent, first time drug offenders. Too many Texans were going to prison for these offenses, and once they got out, they found they couldn’t get a job because they had a criminal record.

I believe in consequences for criminal behavior. But I also believe in second chances and human redemption, because that is the American story.

Americans who suffer from an addiction need help, not moral condemnation. By treating alcohol and drug abuse as a disease, we have given Texans who have experienced a run-in with the law the help they need. In addition to the real human impact, in 2014, Texas had its lowest crime rate since 1968, and we have been able to close three prisons.

We can reform federal sentencing laws, just as we have done at the state level, to ensure more young people have a shot at a better life. And we can do so while keeping our low-income communities safe from crime, preserving the hard-won policing victories that other states seem hell-bent on rolling back.

I am an ardent believer in the Tenth Amendment, and I believe state governments are more accountable to the American people than the federal government is.

But I am also an ardent believer in the Fourteenth Amendment – one of the first great contributions of the Republican Party, second only to the abolition of slavery – which says that no state shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” There has been, and will continue to be, an important and legitimate role for the federal government in enforcing civil rights.

For too long, we Republicans have been content to lose the black vote, because we found that we could win elections without it. But when we gave up on trying to win the support of African-Americans, we lost our moral legitimacy as the party of Lincoln—as the party of equal opportunity for all. It is time for us to once again reclaim our heritage as the only party in the history of the world founded on the principle of freedom for African-Americans.

Rick Perry is a former governor of Texas.