This week, the presidential race will get another jolt when House Speaker Paul Ryan rolls out his long awaited conservative economic agenda. The Ryan plan, which will probably include previous Ryan offerings (Obamacare repeal, entitlement reform) as well as some new anti-poverty policies, is intended as a conservative opportunity blueprint that might anchor and define the party in the face of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump’s ongoing contempt for the very idea of having consistent, credible policy ideas.
How will Democrats respond?
The Center for American Progress is releasing a new report that is designed as a kind of template for an economic agenda that Democrats can coalesce behind. As suggested by the report’s title — “A Progressive Agenda to Cut Poverty and Expand Opportunity” — it is meant as a comprehensive blueprint of progressive economic policies to contrast with Ryan’s, in preparation for an election that may turn to some degree on these topics.
Many of the ideas in the report are familiar ones. But by putting them all in one place, the report shows that there is an existing and ambitious progressive agenda on poverty and opportunity that can unite Democrats. This agenda does not go as far as the one Bernie Sanders campaigned on, but it represents a set of ideas that backers of Sanders and Hillary Clinton might see as common ground. Indeed, many of the ideas in it have been embraced in various forms by both Clinton and Sanders.
The report identifies the core challenges we face: Income has stagnated among most American workers as the top one percent continues to capture an enormous chunk of the income gains in the aftermath of the recession. Making matters worse, the costs of middle class life, such as child care, higher education, and health care, have been rising faster than wages. “This squeeze on families’ budgets has made it even harder for Americans to gain a foothold in the middle class,” the report says, adding that 105 million Americans are either living in poverty or are on the edge of it, with countless families finding themselves unable to save for the future, turning to high-cost borrowing to muddle through, or vulnerable to “financial shocks” that could trap them “in an inescapable cycle of debt.”
“The nation still has a long way to go to build an economy that works for everyone, rather than the wealthy few,” the report says. Among the ideas outlined:
* Measures to create jobs and improve opportunity and access to employment. These include a national program to subsidize employment, building on state level programs that already have a track record. The idea would be to employ federal subsidies to state programs that create opportunity by directly subsidizing low-paying jobs and/or funding measures to reduce barriers to such employment, such as training and transportation to such jobs for people stuck in high-unemployment areas. Other ideas include increased investments in infrastructure and tax credits to employers to encourage apprenticeships for people over 25 years old.
Measures designed to boost opportunity include both state and federal level reforms that might “break the link between mass incarceration and poverty” by reducing mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent offenders and increasing funding for programs that assist the transition to post-prison life.
* Increased investments in “human capital.” These include federal matching funds to states in the quest for universal pre-K education; tax credits for child care; and expanded financial support for higher education (albeit not to the degree Sanders supports).
* Measures designed to help economically strained families. These include a tax credit for children, as well as ideas to “ease tensions between work and family life,” such as expanded family and medical leave and sick days.
* An expansion of the safety net. The report calls for expanded Social Security benefits and a push to expand Obamacare to the remaining millions of uninsured (here is one area where Hillary Clinton and Democrats could be a lot more specific). CAP also calls for resistance to the push to block-grant programs to the states and instead for spending more to expand access to food stamps and unemployment insurance, particularly during future economic downturns.
* Measures designed to boost wages. These include raising the minimum wage to $12 per hour; expanding tax breaks for workers (the Earned Income Tax Credit) to childless adults; expanded overtime protections (such as those recently announced by the Obama administration); and pay equity for women.
A contrast with the Paul Ryan agenda
“This is an extremely comprehensive collection of ideas to cut poverty and expand opportunity, all of which fit comfortably into the progressive agenda,” liberal economist Jared Bernstein tells me. “If Paul Ryan’s agenda is block-granting Medicaid and food stamps to states — which is another way of cutting their budgets and effectiveness — that would be a recipe for higher poverty. Almost everything in the CAP report has a proven track record in terms of reducing poverty and/or expanding opportunity.”
“The Republican approach is, ‘let’s kick things back to the states, here’s a block grant, and good luck in our wonderful market economy,'” Bernstein continues. “The CAP approach recognizes barriers to opportunity are born of discrimination, people stuck in jobless neighborhoods, and market failures generating poverty and mobility problems that government needs to address.”
Still, theoretically, a few of the ideas might be able to garner bipartisan support, at least if our system were functional. Speaker Ryan and other Republicans like the idea of expanding the EITC for lower income workers. Many Republicans support sentencing reform and various forms of investments in infrastructure. And reform-minded conservatives are open to breaking down barriers to opportunity with certain types of government spending, such as subsidizing travel to higher employment areas.
Of course, given that government will likely remain divided even if a Democrat wins the White House, it’s hard to imagine anything like this agenda getting enacted. And so, its main function in the short term may be to try to unify Democrats. Sanders supporters, of course, support a far more robust agenda that includes much more massive infrastructure expenditures, a higher minimum wage, and universal health care and a college education as rights. But some Democrats hope that policies such as these could provide a unifying vehicle.
“Both Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders have provided serious plans to address the epidemic of American poverty,” Rep Barbara Lee, who is neutral in the presidential race and sits on the Democratic convention’s platform drafting committee, tells me. “The new CAP report draws from the best of these proposals and stands in stark contrast to Speaker Ryan’s austerity cuts.”