Commentary | Wages, Incomes, and Wealth

The Post Gets It Wrong: Edwards’ Poverty Policy is Just What’s Needed

This op-ed originally appeared in TPM Cafe.

The article criticizes Edwards for not bringing any new ideas to his signature issue: a plan to focus much more energy and resources on poverty reduction. But as someone who has studied this issue for decades, I can assure you of two things. First, there simply is no amazingly effective silver-bullet idea out there that we’ve somehow overlooked. And second, we know that some, not all, of the “old” ideas work.

The trick is to a) get the right combination of ideas working together, and b) build the political will to implement them. Edwards understands both.

(Full disclosure: I’m not working with his campaign in any capacity, but I did write a chapter for a new book on these issues that Edwards edited.)

What’s particularly upsetting about the Post article is that they ignore a new, important report by the Center for American Progress (CAP) Task Force on Poverty that emphasizes many of the same ideas Edwards has been promoting, ideas that meet both the “right combination” and political criteria just noted (and for the record, the CAP report was covered in the Post itself!).

Re political will, both the Edwards anti-poverty campaign and the CAP report support a poverty-reduction target, a tangible goal that will focus policy makers on the steps that need to be taken to get from here—37 million people in poverty—to there: a stated amount of poverty reduction by a particular time. This strategy of setting a poverty target has been highly effective in the UK.

Then there are the policies. Among others, Edwards stresses higher minimum wages, expanding the Earned Income Credit (a wage subsidy for low-income workers), second chance educational opportunities, an ambitious housing policy, and direct job creation for those whose boats don’t get a lift even in a strong economy.

That’s right, these are old ideas, but they work (and Edwards has some new ones too, like the poverty target and some asset-building ideas). In the 1990s, amidst truly tight job markets, a big EITC expansion, higher minimum wages, and welfare reform that spent more, not less, on training and work supports, we made huge progress against poverty. CAP did a careful analysis of the impact of their ideas, and found that they would reduce poverty by half, at a cost of $90 billion per year (hey, you don’t get something for nothin’ and, anyway, that’s about the value of Bush tax cuts to the top 1%).

Granted, given his message, Edwards house and haircuts are all wrong. But, perhaps because he’s lived in both Americas, he gets the extent to which our gaping income divide will undermine our future.

Here’s what he gets. It’s not just that those baking the pie ought to get fair slices. It’s not even the simple fact that too many poor people are playing by the rules yet still struggling to make ends meet with terribly insufficient incomes. Nor is it the glaringly obvious fact that kids who grow up poor have tremendous disadvantages that it is in all of our interests to avoid.

All those are true and important. But what Edwards gets—and you really want a president who feels this in his or her bones—is that these inequities undermine America. They quietly, slowly, and perniciously erode people’s support for our system of democracy and free markets. Untreated, they lead to distrust and defunding of government, diminished participation in the political system, protectionism and nativism, and a means-spiritedness that is as divisive as it is pessimistic. And I’d argue strongly that this is exactly where we’re headed.

So, don’t be moved be this critique of Edwards poverty policy. To the contrary, when it comes to this issue, he’s the guy to watch.

Jared Bernstein is a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

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