Both Dems and Republicans are talking in one fashion or another about “inequality.” There is a lot both sides get wrong.

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 05: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) speaks at the American Enterprise Institute, on February 5, 2013 in Washington, DC. Leader Cantor participated in a discussion on conservative reforms that he says the 113th Congress can embrace to make life and work easier for more people in regards to education, health care, workforce reform, immigration. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images) Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) speaks at the American Enterprise Institute on Feb. 5, 2013, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

To begin with, the inequality only matters if you think the people at the top are making the rest of us poorer. It is nonsense, but on class warfare rests much of the liberal agenda. What should concern is that upward mobility is slowing and poverty is on the rise.

Republicans, including the Senate Budget Committee ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), call for debt reduction and low taxes to address poverty. Those policies may be generally good for a vibrant economy, which in turn creates jobs, but let’s get real. Poverty (and the inequality between those in poverty and those economically successful Americans) afflicts those who for one reason or another don’t or can’t access the free market. They wouldn’t be in poverty, of course, if they had job skills, a network of support and other conditions for attaining a middle-class lifestyle. Inequality worsens as the economy becomes more demanding because those at the bottom find it harder to find unskilled jobs. The technological engine runs faster, making it harder for those without adequate social and educational skills to hop on board.

Many Democrats, including the president, have it wrong as well. The minimum wage, food stamps and government spending over the past 45 years haven’t eliminated poverty; those at the bottom are in some sense more hopeless than ever.

The insistence on spending more, perhaps well-intentioned, is evidence of fundamental confusion between being poor and being in poverty. Poverty is a condition in which people are unable to organize their lives to be self-sufficient; their economic status is the result of the dysfunction brought about by broken families, poor schools, drug and/or alcohol abuse, incarceration (or crime victimhood) and a host of other factors. David Brooks aptly put it: “Low income is the outcome of these interrelated problems, but it is not the problem. To say it is the problem is to confuse cause and effect. To say it is the problem is to give yourself a pass from exploring the complex and morally fraught social and cultural roots of the problem. It is to give yourself permission to ignore the parts that are uncomfortable to talk about but that are really the inescapable core of the thing.”

In other words, the government is good at collecting taxes and cutting checks, but it has never been effective in duplicating parental support, teaching impulse control, staving off teen pregnancy and the like — the factors that would lessen poverty. Liberals get squeamish, afraid that social conservatives will “impose” values on others, when we talk about instilling successful habits. Libertarians insist the poor can fend for themselves. And small-government conservatives assume the federal government is counterproductive in whatever problem it is addressing. As a result all sides refuse to focus on the root of the problem and some possible solutions.

We do have some examples of very successful government programs that addressed real ills. Social Security and Medicare went a long way in providing a decent life for seniors. Welfare reform was hugely successful in getting people into the job market. And civil rights legislation changed behavior and prompted an entire reevaluation of race. Sometimes getting the incentives right (work over welfare) and using state coercion (i.e. forcing employers to hire without regard to race) works. And when people have been successful but cannot work (due to age or disability), many really do need government assistance.

Thoughtful people on both sides of the aisle should consider a few basic ideas when crafting anti-poverty programs:

First, marriage is good; two parents in a household are good. Whatever policies discourage such arrangements should be dumped and whatever arrangements aid family cohesion should be embraced. Intact families teach children to organize their lives, provide boundaries, teach impulse control, offer a safe environment to take reasonable risks, convey social norms, cope with failure and inculcate values and faith. There is no institution that is so effective at doing so many things, and the presence of only one adult in children’s lives can strain parent and children to the breaking point.

Second, social pressure does work to change long-standing understandings and habits. It’s considered nearly a mortal sin to litter, smoke or drive while intoxicated. Certainly laws and monetary penalties helped, but MADD and the environmental movement had an awful lot to do with stemming the epidemic of drunk driving and encouraging people to pick up after themselves. If we spent a fraction of the money now spent on anti-smoking problems to encourage kids to stay in school and delay both marriage and parenthood, the results could well outstrip the results of billions spent over decades.

Third, it requires multiple forces (popular culture, parents, state and local government, religious institutions and civic groups) all carrying the same message to affect significant social change. Even small messages begin to change behavior. (Why in the world do presidents invite sports teams to the White House as the highest celebration of talent? If we can in essence shame everyone into recycling, can’t communities cooperate to eliminate truancy?) We have 50 years or so of evidence as to what works and doesn’t. Head Start doesn’t affect educational outcomes beyond a couple of years, yet the president keeps pushing dubious programs like universal pre-school. School choice programs that have  good track records should be encouraged (not sued by the Justice Department) and used as models in other locales.

Finally, the president — whose life story is in large part about developing skills that guarantee success despite circumstances of birth — has wasted five years of the bully pulpit. Instead of harping on Warren Buffett’s secretary or the 1 percent, he and his wife should be spreading the gospel of poverty prevention (stay in school, put off childbirth until after marriage, etc.). Their success is the result of the behaviors we need to encourage; yet they propound the notion that if the minimum wage were just higher or we created another government agency, others would have the same opportunities they did.

This is not an argument for ending or even limiting subsistence programs that address the very young, the very old and the physically or mentally impaired. As a decent society we need to take care of such people. But expending money to keep people from misery is not the same as ending poverty among the able-bodied who are of working age.

It is so much easier (and it revs up their base) for leftists  to say poverty is about mean Republicans trying to slow the growth of food stamps. It plays on right-wing talk radio when conservatives’ tax-cut plans are sold as antidotes to poverty. In fact, we know what skills and behaviors keep people out of poverty. We need to be candid about what those are. Then, all parts of society, public and private, have to cajole young people to habituate themselves to behaviors that foster success and upward mobility.