Fighting Poverty in the U.S. Today: Words But No War

Believe it or not as 2015 drew to a close and 2016 started, poverty became a hot topic again.

In December, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Brookings Institution (Brookings) released a report titled: Opportunity, Responsibility, and Security: A Consensus Plan for Reducing Poverty and Restoring the American Dream. In January, many of the Republican candidates for President participated in the Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity in South Carolina (Kemp Forum).

Early in the year as well, a group of conservatives presented a paper, Challenging the Caricature, at Stanford's Hoover Institution designed to confront the widely held perception that conservative Republicans are not concerned about the needs of the poor and human rights. And, last - but certainly not least - the Koch Brothers announced a new project called Stand Together focused on "poverty" and "educational quality" with the intent of "strengthening the fabric of American society".

Has the War on Poverty been reignited? We think not and will explain why later in this blog. Let us begin, however, by discussing the AEI/Brookings Consensus Plan Report (Consensus Plan).

The Consensus Plan is a serious and significant document. It was jointly crafted by a Working Group on Poverty and Opportunity (Working Group) comprised of 15 representatives from the "left-leaning" Brookings and the "right-leaning" AEI.

What makes the document serious is that there is a detailed substantive analysis of the issue of poverty in the United States today and the conditions of the poor. What makes it significant is that its recommendations were achieved by building consensus which as Eduardo Porter reports based upon interviews with some of the Working Group members required trade-offs and compromise

The Consensus Plan provides recommendations in "three domains of life that interlock so tightly that they must be studied and improved together: family, work and education."

  • Recommendations in the family domain include: promoting parenthood, marriage and 2 parent families; delayed responsible childbearing (including support for contraception); and, increased parenting education.
  • Recommendations in the work domain include: improving skills to get well paying jobs; making work pay more for the less educated ( including raising the minimum wage but not to the $10.10/hr proposed by President Obama); and, raising work levels of the less well educated (including requiring those who are capable and receiving benefits to seek employment).
  • Recommendations in the education domain include: increased public investment in underfunded stages of education (including pre-school); educating the whole child (including socio-emotional and character building); and, modernizing the organization and accountability of education (including supporting charter schools and focusing more attention on the performance of community colleges).

The Consensus Plan states that it is grounded in the "three broadly shared American values of opportunity, responsibility and security." The Working Group say those values enabled them to work together, and observes, "...if our diverse group can come together to support a comprehensive and far reaching set of proposals, based on shared values, we believe our report can find support across the political spectrum in Washington and state capitals."

We believe that selective elements in the Report could find some support "across the political spectrum". But, we do not think that it will receive much - if any - support in its entirety as an approach for "going to war" on poverty.

Our reasoning for this is simple. The plan was built through consensus. And, as such does not align to the ideological biases and blinders of either the right or the left.

Because of the Republican Party's being more visible on this issue, at this point in time, let's examine what it is being emphasized from that side of the political spectrum.

It was heartening that the Republican presidential candidates convened in South Carolina on January 9 to discuss poverty in the Forum moderated by Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan and Senator Tim Scott (R-SC). (Donald Trump and Ted Cruz the two leaders in the national and Iowa polling at the time, did not participate. That might mean something.)

It was disheartening to read that the bulk of the discussion on the panels at the Kemp Forum centered around giving the states more control over the funds spent on poverty. Eduardo Porter reports, "...Republican candidates unequivocally proclaimed...The first most critical step is to get the federal government out of the poverty business, take the money from federal welfare programs and hand it to the states which are closer to the problem and will have better ideas."

Mr. Porter notes later in his article, that's not a new idea. It was tried over 20 years ago through the federal block grant program and failed miserably.

More importantly, as we commented in a Huffington blog post on the "urban crisis" that we wrote in March of 2015, many states in their role as financial middle men add very little to the problem solving equation. That's the viewpoint of Bruce Katz, the former director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution and Aaron Chatterji of Duke University who asserts that because of increasing partisanship and political and policy realities the states can no longer be looked at as "laboratories of democracy."

While the perspective of the presidential candidates was disheartening, the viewpoint presented in Challenging the Caricature (Caricature) was truly disappointing. When we first heard of this paper drafted by 12 conservatives we thought it might provide substantive ideas on addressing poverty in the United States in same way that the AEI/Brookings Institution report did.

Unfortunately, it does not. Its subtitle "A Record-Based Strategy for Long Term Conservative Majorities" is the first give-a-way. The paper's initial section with the heading "The Conservative Leadership Record on Behalf of the Poor, Persecuted and Vulnerable" is the next.

The only items cited in that section that relate in any way to the needs of the poor here in the U.S. were: "repealing laws that unduly criminalize and incarcerate"; opposing the escalating cost of subsidy driven college administrative bloat and defining college tuition debt loads as one of the great threats; and, actively supporting such critical education initiatives as charter schools and English language total immersion.

Although not intended to do so the Caricature, reinforces the caricature. It is highly partisan, political and ideological in its presentation and fans the flames of divisiveness rather than providing points for potential unity.

Finally, there is the Koch brothers new Stand Together initiative which, according to a January 29 USA Today article, is still in the start-up phase but expects to raise $15 million this year to address "social problems" such as "gang violence" and "high recidivism rates."

It's too early to tell what will come of this. But, Pam Vogel of NationofChange, cautions skepticism because "previous Koch-backed poverty and education efforts have been coupled with ideological proselytizing,"

That's all right. It is their right to be on the right. And, that's why it seems likely that the Stand Together interventions will be ideologically-driven rather than consensus-based.

In summary, that's what we can see looking at the things from the right side of the political spectrum. We are certain we would encounter an equal and opposite ideological perspective from the left side of the spectrum.

We say this not as pessimists but as realists. As realists, we don't see these sides coming together in the short term to embrace the AEI/Brookings Consensus Plan - especially during this highly fractious election year.

But, there is next year and the poverty problem which has persisted for so long will still be with us. It absolutely must be addressed to ensure America's future and its enduring greatness. Therefore, as realists, who believe that change is possible, we understand those who are committed to this issue must and will carry on.

Near the conclusion of a Huffington blog on poverty that we wrote in 2014 - the 50th anniversary year of the initiation of the War on Poverty, we observed, "We need to find new and better ways to fight the War on Poverty that transcend political and ideological boundaries."

The members of the AEI/Brookings Working Group have transcended those boundaries. They are to be commended for that and for giving us a solid framework to move forward with in their Consensus Plan.

Because of our abiding interest in this area, we will present some thoughts on how to refine that framework in a future blog.

Till then, these have been more words on a topic that demands action.
We offer them here with the hope that words will lead to work and that work will lead to war.

That war must be a collective and collaborative enterprise among people of good will who believe in the shared American values of opportunity, responsibility and security and who have a shared understanding that the only way to restore the American Dream is to make it the province of all citizens regardless of race, religion or socio-economic status.