A Bi-Partisan Plan For Ending Poverty

NYT recently reported on a new report from Brookings & the American Enterprise Institute on ending poverty. New reports on poverty come out all the time with little fanfare, but this one is different.

The working group of authors come from a wide range of ideological backgrounds, the far right and the far left, lifelong Republicans, and die-hard Democrats.

In short, people who never agree on anything.

But what these particular people agree on is that poverty in the U.S. has reached tragic proportions and must be reduced.

You can read the full report here, “Opportunity, Responsibility, & Security,” but I will also share with you some of its major tenets, recommendations, and controversies.

The First: Three areas of life affect poverty; Family, Work, and Education.

The Second: They are all linked and inter-connected.

The Third: We should propose policies that create synergies among the three domains.

The Fourth: We should promote the American values of Opportunity, Responsibility, and Security. For instance, “If you don’t work hard or don’t play by the rules, then you aren’t entitled to a reward.”

The report spends a good deal of time dissecting the factors shaping Opportunity, Responsibility, and Security. Here the analysis is pretty rigorous and they touch on issues that clearly make a huge difference in inter-generational income mobility and all the things that make up the American Dream. Recommendations they make are very sound: improving job training, ensuring work is widely available to all low-income adults who want it, encouraging private employers to create upward employment paths for their workers, increasing investment in early childhood education (infant/toddler) and Pre-K.

I especially like their recommendation for education: “Educating the whole child to promote social-emotional and character development as well as academic skills.” This addresses the gaps in “social capital” so pervasive among lower-income students and so crucial to getting and moving up in jobs. Kids from upper-income backgrounds instinctively know how to leverage social capital, but kids from lower and middle income ones need to be taught.

Now for the controversies. Many have argued that the report is  just a new, bi-partisan way of blaming the poor for problems over which they truly have little control. “If you don’t work hard or don’t play by the rules, no rewards,” could be a fair threat to a middle-class 8th grader who refused to do homework. But we are talking about poor people who in many cases can’t earn enough in jobs to pay rent or feed their family. Besides, they argue, a good education and a good job are not so much rewards as rights. They are entitled to them because they live in our society.

Another eye-brow raising aspect of the report is the emphasis on Family Composition. The ideal “Family Composition” for low-income households is a two-parent, married household. Single-motherhood is frowned upon by the these authors, irrespective of the suitability of a child’s father as a spouse. Naked Capitalism re-posted a critique by Bill Black that took issue with this as well.

To the authors’ credit, reports like this often end with platitudes, but this one actually addresses the question: Who Pays? They propose some good suggestions: Reduce Social Security for the affluent and “corporate welfare” like agricultural subsidies. Also reform tax exclusions that primarily benefit high-income households.

Overall, I think the report is a positive sign that some middle ground can be found when people are pursuing a worthwhile goal. In terms of its specific policies, some have merit. Others might be too eager to point fingers at the poor, when there are societal mechanisms working against them. Until those change, no progress will be made.

Everyone will take something different away from the report. And there will be disagreements still. But at least it is a plan for a way forward. Poor people in this country so desperately need and deserve one. We should all be able to agree on that.