Finding Common Political Ground on Poverty
If you have been paying any attention to America’s paralyzed politics, you are not going to believe this.
Even as substantive legislation in Washington remained largely bogged down by bitter partisan mistrust, some of the leading thinkers on opposite sides of the ideological divide — experts on the right who have advised Republican policy makers alongside left-leaning scholars who have Democrats’ ear — came together to champion an increase in the minimum wage.
They didn’t stop there. In a report published in December, they also recommended attaching a job requirement to the food stamp program, to compel poor people to work. They strongly endorsed marriage, as well as birth control.
They called for increasing the earned-income tax credit for adults without children. They also proposed more federal investment in early childhood education and community colleges. They defended a common core in education.
To pay for it all, they recommended culling corporate boondoggles and individual tax expenditures that overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy, like farm subsidies and the mortgage interest tax deduction. And they urged reducing Social Security benefits for affluent Americans.
These folks do not often agree. The group included Robert Doar of the conservative American Enterprise Institute and Lawrence Mead of New York University, who believe that welfare should come with stiff work requirements to discourage dependency. They sat across from Sheldon Danziger of the Russell Sage Foundation and Jane Waldfogel of Columbia University, who believe in a cash safety net of last resort, at least for families with children.
“Everybody had to swallow very hard to put their name on that,” acknowledged Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute, who was part of the 15-member group.
It is easy to dismiss the exercise as a futile effort to find a minimum common denominator between disparate opposites. The report is not likely to make its way into legislation any time soon. But, the experts hope, the next administration might turn its attention to poverty and find a set of viable ideas on the shelf.
The collection of proposals — from promoting strong and stable families to improving the quantity and quality of work — actually adds up to a coherent approach to improving an anti-poverty strategy that has fallen far short of its goals.
This raises a tantalizing prospect. Is it possible that combating America’s entrenched poverty — the deepest among advanced industrialized nations — may have finally become salient enough for the left and right to break through the ideological gridlock?
“The report took us longer than we thought,” Mr. Danziger told me. “But everybody agreed that even though there were things in it we didn’t like, the package together would be better than the status quo.”
A dose of skepticism is probably wise. Preserving the bipartisan balance — drafted over the course of 14 months, with New York University’s Jonathan Haidt in the role of ideological mediator — required a lot of vagueness that would never survive the rough and tumble of the real political arena. Touchy subjects like race were mostly left off the table. And though bipartisanship may have committed both sides to work from the same facts, it did nothing to alter how each side weighed them.
Consider the call to increase the minimum wage. The scholars made note of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office’s recent assessment that the Obama administration’s proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 from $7.25 and index it to inflation would provide higher pay to 16 million to 24 million workers and lift a million people out of poverty — at a cost of 500,000 jobs over three years and a slight uptick in consumer prices.
Conservatives still found the costs too high and the benefits insufficiently compelling. Most of the income gains would benefit the nonpoor, they argued. And what if the budget office underestimated job losses? What if fixing the minimum wage to inflation brought other costs?
This debate was a “clear example of how values can influence the reading of research evidence,” the report admitted candidly.
Nonetheless, in the service of a deal, those on the right and the left held their noses and agreed to “recommend an increase below what the administration has proposed, but still large enough to substantially improve the rewards associated with work among the less-skilled.”
The two sides will never entirely agree, of course, partly because they view the causes of poverty from such different angles.
To the left, deprivation is caused mostly by factors beyond the control of the poor. These include globalization that undercut good jobs previously within the reach of the less educated, an educational system segregated by race and class, lack of parental resources, discrimination, excessive use of prison.
Experts on the right, by contrast, put a lot of the weight on personal responsibility, often faulting the bad choices of the poor. And government support, by providing the poor with an income with few strings attached, has made their choices worse.
Yet common ground does exist. Understanding the causes of poverty has improved over the last few decades, helping push solutions through the ideological fog.
Many liberals are still skeptical that encouraging marriage will do much to help the poor, but most have come to accept that the children of intact families have a better shot in life. Some conservatives have come to acknowledge that though the push to tie work requirements to public assistance may have made sense in the booming 1990s, the approach might require adjustments to fit the present, less dynamic economy.
This opens up opportunities for deals. Conservatives want those on government aid to get a job? Liberals will agree, provided there is a guarantee that jobs are available and that there is a safety net for those at the very bottom who simply cannot work.
“If we require more work as a condition of receiving public benefits, we should support policies expanding work availability to those who need it,” the report states.
Progressives, Mr. Danziger told me, placed more weight on the part of the report that calls for “ensuring jobs are available.” Conservatives, by contrast, preferred the bit that mentioned “raising work levels among the hard-to-employ.”
This is the way deals are made. “This is modest,” Mr. Danziger argued. “If we had a system where people were not fearful of the Tea Party or of unions, you could get 60 percent of the House and 60 percent of the Senate to agree.”
There is another hurdle that may be even harder to overcome: money. The report’s “close tax expenditures” approach to financing useful proposals has become the standard Hail Mary pass. But given all the interests with a stake in the present tax system, it never seems to muster much support.
As Mr. Strain put it, “it’s impossible to deny that conservatives want to spend less money than liberals.” Indeed, when House Speaker Paul D. Ryan proposed expanding the earned-income tax credit, he favored paying for it by cutting funds for other anti-poverty efforts.
Still, it is worth seeking a deal. If the Democrats retain the White House while the Republicans maintain their grip on Congress, neither party will be able to dominate Washington policy making. For the poor, a compromise along these lines would be a lot better than doing nothing.
Correction: February 2, 2016
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misstated when the photograph was taken. The picture, showing demonstrators in Des Moines protesting for a minimum hourly wage of $15, was taken last month, not in 2015.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @portereduardo