Creating Wealth for the Poor

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Ron Sims, the county executive in Washington state's King County, believes government's job is "to help create wealth more efficiently." That view comes naturally to a leader of the entrepreneurial Seattle region, which has improved the nation's experience of everything from technology to coffee.

The late Paul Offner was animated in the final years of his life by a moral passion over the failure to address the deep problems of our nation's poorest young men, particularly African Americans. He left behind a manuscript, published last month by the Urban Institute, in which he and two colleagues issued an urgent plea for public action on behalf of our most disadvantaged fellow citizens.

Oh, and just as a reminder of how misleading stereotypes can be: Sims is African American while Offner, who died in 2004, was white.

Meeting Sims and reading the Urban Institute manuscript provided a bracing reminder that there is an authentic search going on outside of conventional politics for the new ideas to animate a new political era -- precisely what Democrats are supposed to be seeking.

Sims is a bluff, warm man who gets excited about problem-solving. A Democrat, he will talk your ear off about the King County government's effort to work with local employers in creating a new heath care delivery system. The idea is that government can be a catalyst for negotiation, research and reform and save both public and private employers money while producing better health outcomes for consumers.

It fits with Sims's larger idea that government, far from being a drain on the nation's wealth, ought to "provide the social infrastructure and the physical infrastructure to help wealth be created." He said during lunch here the other day that Democrats should run under the slogan: "Rebuild America."

Sims notes that after World War II, the federal government helped unleash an era of exceptional growth through investments in schools, interstate highways and higher education. Both India and China are "making intelligent moves for economic growth" and the United States cannot stand by and watch. "You need people and brains to create an economy," he says. "You need transportation to move an economy. And you need an environmental policy to create clean air and clean water."

Sims's idea reminds Democrats that a commitment to active government is not simply about redistributing wealth. It is also rooted in the historically sound insight that effective government has always been essential to robust economic growth. Government, in the Sims formulation, should be a dynamic player in our nation's economic life.

Yet Democrats face a paradoxical problem: They find themselves attacked for being too concerned about redistributing money, yet they are far too timid in committing themselves to lifting up the very poorest Americans.

That's where the Urban Institute study, "Reconnecting Disadvantaged Young Men," co-authored by Offner with my Georgetown University colleagues Peter Edelman and Harry J. Holzer, comes in. They write: "Nearly 3 million less-educated young people between the ages of 16 and 24 -- about half of whom are young men -- are disconnected from education and employment in the United States." This disconnected cohort includes significant numbers of Hispanics and whites, but African Americans are disproportionately represented in their ranks. While policymakers have spent much energy on the problems facing single mothers, they have done little about the disadvantages facing young men.

The decline of manufacturing employment means the economy is producing fewer well-paying jobs for the less-skilled. These disconnected young men tend to go to the poorest schools, grow up amid concentrated poverty and in families that often lack fathers, and face persistent employment discrimination. Face it: The one expensive social program we have for this group is incarceration. Can't we do better?

The authors of the report offer resolutely hardheaded solutions. They would reform education and training programs and work with employers and other intermediaries to connect these young men to the labor market. They would expand programs such as the Job Corps that have "proven track records," and have us do far more to integrate ex-offenders into the world of work. They would create much stronger work incentives through income supplements, higher minimum wages and changes in the child support system.

The Urban Institute authors can be read as bringing Sims's practical focus on government's role in wealth creation to the task of expanding opportunities for the least fortunate among the young. This is good public policy. My hunch is that it could also be good politics.

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