Changing the discussion on poverty (Washintong Post)

By Jennifer Rubin

Ask many conservatives about fighting poverty and they will tell you we need to cut the safety net and boost growth. Ask many liberals about fighting poverty and they will tell you we have not spent enough and the tax code should be used to shift wealth to the needy. Both miss the boat.

Over at the American Enterprise Institute Robert Doar and Angela Rachidi write: “If helping people achieve self-sufficiency and be free of government assistance is the goal, the safety net has largely failed. But if reducing material hardship is the goal, itperforms well. Ultimately, government should be working toward both goals, which means increased efforts to help people earn their own success.” Conservatives have long argued that improving material well-being impedes the goal of getting people off public assistance, but that is not entirely right either.

Tax reform, as we have discussed before, can both increase the amount of money in poor people’s pockets and be used to incentivize and reward work. Likewise, unemployment benefits can be made more generous, if, for example, they take the form of relocation grants to allow people to find work in high-employment states. In short, it is not a matter of taking away benefits but changing incentives so the short-term gains of being on assistance do not impede the long-term goal of becoming independent.

Meaningful education reform can also help, even if it costs more than the current system. The authors argue:

Government can also help families earn their way out of poverty through effective education and job training programs. Too much is currently spent on programs that have little evidence of success. Only one in five students who attend a public community college complete a 2-year degree. Similarly, evaluations of government-funded job training programs are mixed, ongoing, or unclear. Participants in these programs need credentials that will benefit them in the labor market. Increased education reduces poverty, but access alone won’t work. Increased support for programs that have proven success is needed, while programs and policies that have limited success need reform.

Finally, we should be realistic about what government can effectively do (e.g., transfer money) and what, particularly at the federal level, it cannot. “Typically, less income comes into unmarried households and single parents have less time and fewer resources to devote to their children,” Doar and Rachidi write. “As a society, we should be honest about the benefits of marriage, re-position it as the best way to raise children, and support all families in their efforts to benefit from it.” They also explain:

In addition to family, innovative programs outside of government (or in partnership) may be better positioned to help poor people earn their way out of poverty and be effective complements to traditional safety net programs. For example, social enterprises have increased employment among hard to employ populations. These are programs in the private sector that function as businesses and employ vulnerable populations as a way to move them into the broader labor market. In addition, pay for success programs (or social impact bonds) are currently being studied in the US as a way to help low-income populations. These programs engage private investors and government only pays investors when certain outcomes are achieved.

Other promising approaches out of the private or non-profit sector involve workforce development efforts that focus on executive-functioning for low-skilled women and programs focusing on behavioral interventions (“nudges”) within workforce development agencies, as well as traditional cash welfare agencies.  Evaluation efforts are also ongoing to study career pathway programs that partner with colleges and universities, as well as transitional jobs in the private sector for low-income workers.

That is not to say a president cannot recruit private sector players, raise awareness and cajole state and local leaders.

It is disappointing but not surprising that a liberal president has shown such lack of vision and leadership on anti-poverty efforts. Liberals ferociously defend the existing welfare state, both because it employs many public employee unions and because conservatives have not provided adequate alternatives and assurance we won’t be depriving the poor of food, shelter, healthcare and the rest.

It may seem inescapable that the remainder of President Obama’s term is going to be dominated by shutdown fights and confrontations over his abuse of executive power. But somewhere in the mix — either in a grand bargain or in stand-alone legislation — political self-interest should dictate that the parties could both grab credit and accomplish something by collaboration rather than one-upmanship. It is worth reminding Democrats that whatever is thrust upon the other side unilaterally is unlikely to survive a change in administration while deals forged by both tend to become a president’s real “legacy.”

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.