Consensus Plan to Reduce Poverty and Enhance Opportunity

Speaking of strange bedfellows, the conservative American Enterprise Institute and liberal Brookings Institution teamed up in 2015 to produce a consensus report on addressing poverty and enhancing opportunity. It started with facts and contained policies that crossed partisan divides.

Speaking of strange bedfellows, the conservative American Enterprise Institute and liberal Brookings Institution teamed up in 2015 to produce a consensus report on addressing poverty and enhancing opportunity. It started with facts and contained policies that crossed partisan divides.

Since strange bedfellows became the order of the day on raising the debt ceiling, providing disaster relief and keeping the federal government running for three more months, maybe it is time to revisit more cats and dogs proposals.

One of the more interesting products of diametrically opposed groups is the 2015 American Enterprise Institute-Brookings Institution consensus report on how to reduce poverty in America. The report was published after 14 months of painstaking work by 15 experts from AEI, a conservative think tank, and Brookings, its liberal counterpart.

On its website, Brookings touts the report “as a consensus plan to reduce poverty and restore the American Dream [that] bridges the partisan divide and suggests a way forward despite the political polarization and gridlock that paralyzed much of Washington.”

In the nearly two years since the plan was made public, little in the nation’s capital has changed. The unexpected deal last week between President Trump and Democratic congressional leaders on the debt ceiling, spending authority and disaster relief is probably just a political blip.

Instructively, the AEI-Brookings report begins with “facts on poverty and opportunity that progressives and conservatives can agree on.” Even if the report contained no recommendations, agreeing on the facts would be a major boon.

According to the report, the percentage of single women with children has quadrupled to 40.8 percent as marriage rates declined between 1970 and 2010. In 2013, single-parent households earned an average of $36,000 annually, roughly a third of married-couple family incomes. Most troubling, only 4 percent of children born to poor families ever become high wage-earners, while 43 percent remain poor into adulthood. The data draws a correlation between family composition and education, employment and wages, which have downstream effects on poverty rates and economic mobility.

To address family trends, the AEI-Brookings report recommends policies that promote marriage, delayed and responsible childbearing, parenting skills and job skill development for men and women.

Brookings experts conceded the importance of marriage and family structure, while AEI experts acknowledged the benefits of family planning, which can include use of contraceptives as well as abortions.

On the jobs front, the report cites the need for higher-level skills in the workplace and how people, especially men, without advanced skills can fall behind and never climb the economic ladder.  Recommended policies included making more jobs available and make work pay better than it does now for lesser educated and skilled workers.

Reinforcing that “a good education is important to achieving the American Dream,” the report says achieving the American Dream now more than that ever requires hard work and a good education. “The education level of adult heads of households has been increasingly associated with their income as the income gap between the well-educated and the less-educated has grown steadily over the last four decades,” according to the report.

Policies to cope with a shrinking American Dream include increased public investment in preschool and postsecondary education, modernizing the organization and accountability of educational systems, closing funding gaps and educating the “whole child” to promote social-emotional as well as academic skills.

The way forward, the AEI-Brookings report concludes, should adhere to three core values:

  1. That all Americans should have the opportunity to apply their talents and efforts to better themselves and their children, regardless of the circumstances of their birth;
  2. That all Americans have a responsibility to provide for themselves and their families to the best of their abilities before asking others for help;
  3. That all Americans are entitled to a basic level of security against the vacissitudes of life and, in a nation as rich as ours, to a baseline level of material well-being.

“The only way forward, we believe, is to work together,” the report’s authors insist. “No side has a monopoly on the truth, but each side can block legislative action.”

It is striking in these passages to see conservative and liberal thinking crisscross as policy recommendations converge on addressing poverty and enhancing opportunity. There are significant give-and-takes in the report, but the challenges facing many Americans rise above partisan thinking or ideological purity.

“Poverty is changing,” the report’s authors say, “and policy responses must change, too.” So far, despite the good work of strange bedfellows, they haven’t.