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Don’t Forget the Poor

The poverty of the GOP’s antipoverty agenda.

Aug 26, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 47 • By LORI SANDERS AND ELI LEHRER
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Most of these problems are not new. But with just a few notable exceptions (Jack Kemp; more recently, Rick Santorum), the Republican party and the conservative movement have been hesitant to offer policies to ameliorate these problems. Why should now be any different? 

To start, because writing off some 46 million fellow citizens is simply not viable in a healthy liberal democracy. Democracy requires that everyone have access to opportunity. Concern for the poor, moreover, is a core value for Americans of all political stripes, a fact made abundantly clear in the massive dataset of social-attitude surveys compiled by New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt.

And the poor represent a larger part of the conservative coalition than many Republicans realize. Between 28 and 36 percent of people earning less than $15,000 per year give their votes to GOP candidates. That’s better than Republicans typically do among African Americans, Jews, or Asians. 

But in the end, a conservative poverty agenda ought to be seen as essential to building a democratic society that favors and rewards the industrious and innovative, yet includes the poor. By failing to provide such an agenda, conservatives ignore a prominent national problem—and in doing so abandon the field to the political left. 

Any conservative antipoverty agenda must begin with work—which presupposes employability: habits of courtesy, responsibility, punctuality, honesty, and so on. Research shows overwhelmingly that work is central to escaping poverty. This is true not only for the obvious reasons—the wages and benefits—but also for the role work plays in cultivating healthy lifestyles, that is, in helping individuals achieve self-respect, feel happier, and set an example for younger generations. And the consensus on the centrality of work is near universal: Researchers Isabel Sawhill and Quentin Karpilow of the Brookings Institution—no bastion of conservatism—have identified a “work gap” that leaves poor families at a disadvantage in all of these areas. As Sawhill and Karpilow write, “some [poor] households lack an employed member, a majority lack two earners and a high proportion work very few hours even when the economy is operating at full employment.” 

Despite lots of high-minded rhetoric about the value of work, the conservative public policy agenda on work remains woefully underdeveloped. Historically, the focus has been on tying work requirements to welfare programs and, more recently, resisting the Obama administration’s efforts to gut existing work requirements. This is all good. But given a still-sluggish economy and the relocation of many jobs away from areas where poor people live, work mandates alone—without appropriate plans to encourage and support the poor in their search for jobs—represent an insufficient response that, in its current form, just adds bureaucratic requirements to already bloated public programs. 

Properly structured work incentives would build on what is already our largest welfare program, the Earned Income Tax Credit, which remains decidedly modest. For a single worker without children living at home, the EITC refunds less than $425 per year. Introducing and expanding similar wage supplements, even the short-lived “Making Work Pay” tax credit included in the misbegotten 2009 stimulus package, would further encourage a life of work as preferable to welfare or life in the underground economy.

In the short term, conservatives should consider, and debate thoroughly, the merits of a variety of measures that encourage employers to create more entry-level jobs. These could include permitting employers to pay a sub-minimum “training” wage when they invest in developing the skills of the previously unemployed. They could also include relocation grants offered through the unemployment system to help people move away from pockets of high unemployment and to growing areas with a surplus of jobs. 

Of particular interest should be reform of public programs whose structure discourages work. This might include allowing people to hang on to some benefits—including unemployment and a larger share of disability insurance payments—as they transition into the workforce. The disability system, in particular, should shift its focus to returning the disabled to work where possible, rather than cementing permanent dependence on the state. 

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