Thursday, May 3, 2007

E.J. Dionne Jr. On American Poverty

I posted last week about the Center for American Progress' very interesting proposal to cut American poverty in half. Sadly, there was very little reaction from the press or even political politicians. Fortunately, E.J. Dionne has decided to take up the issue in his Washington Post column:

One reason our nation has maintained generally healthy levels of economic growth is our success in spreading income around -- particularly from the 1940s to the early 1970s. This created more purchasing power among an ever-larger group of Americans. We are thus tempting fate by following the formula of Andrew Mellon, the Republican Treasury secretary in the Roaring '20s who never met a tax cut for the rich he didn't like. He was rather popular until 1929.

Here's the odd thing about the present moment: As a country, we are much more practical about poverty reduction than we were in the 1960s. Most plans on offer are not utopian schemes. They promote work and would build ladders so today's poor can become tomorrow's middle class.

That's the significance of the anti-poverty report issued last week by the Center for American Progress, the think tank that is the closest thing we have to a Democratic administration in exile. The report deserves more attention than it has gotten, not because it breaks new ground but precisely because it brings together some of the most pragmatic ideas on poverty reduction. The task force that prepared it included veteran liberals such as Peter Edelman and Angela Glover Blackwell but also resolute middle-of-the-roaders such as the Rev. Floyd Flake, a champion of faith-based approaches to poverty, and Charles Kolb, president of the pro-business Committee for Economic Development.

Their first recommendations aren't revolutionary, just sensible: They'd raise the minimum wage, and they'd expand the earned-income tax credit, a program supported by Ronald Reagan and expanded by Bill Clinton. That tax credit has done more than any other measure to keep working Americans out of poverty. The task force would also make unionization easier, on the theory that giving workers the power to bargain for themselves is better than a government handout.

More should be done for 16- to 24-year-olds near or below the poverty line who are out of school and out of work. In 2005, the report says, there were 1.7 million of them, a number big enough to be alarming but small enough to give public policy a chance to make a difference.

Other recommendations are designed to promote upward mobility through expanded child-care assistance, "early education for all" and stepped-up efforts to make higher education more accessible. The panel would modernize the unemployment insurance system and other programs for low-income people that date back 30 years or more. Capitalists should like their proposals to give the poor more access to financial services and expand their ability to save. And to prevent a new crime wave, the task force urges us to do a lot more to "help former prisoners find stable employment and reintegrate into their communities."


Read it all. As Dionne points out--there is a cost for this proposal, but it is affordable: "$90 billion a year -- a little over one-fifth of the annual cost of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts." For those of us doing well, and who benefited the most from these tax cuts, we need to remember Jesus' warning about the importance of what we did for "the least of these" on Judgment Day.

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