CENTRISM AND bipartisanship are not exactly the order of the day in American politics. Nor, alas, do evidence-based approaches to serious matters of economic and social policy dominate the current presidential campaign. Indeed, one measure of the political process’s dysfunctionality is that the contagion of polarization has even spread to the Washington think tank community, where too much partisan rhetoric travels under the false flag of independent “research.”
A refreshing exception to all of the above is a new report on poverty and social mobility by a working group assembled under the auspices of the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution, Washington’s venerable center-right and center-left policy shops, respectively. As its title — “Opportunity, Responsibility, and Security” — suggests, the paper tries to identify the values both right and left still agree on, in spite of everything. The report usefully starts with an objective summary of actual economic conditions, the most troubling findings of which are the recent decline in labor force participation of young black men and the stark connection between single-parent households and diminished life prospects for children. It then proposes ways to put the common values of left and right into operation against disturbing trends such as rising child poverty and declining intergenerational class mobility.
Some of those suggestions strike us as more likely to succeed — or at least more amenable to government intervention — than others. Correctly, the report calls for “a new cultural norm surrounding parenthood and marriage,” but it is far from clear how even the best new programs in that regard will succeed where efforts by such powerful institutions as, say, organized religion have failed. More concrete, and promising, is the report’s call for increasing the earned-income tax credit (EITC) for childless adult workers. This wage subsidy for low-income job-holders has proved effective at both combating poverty and promoting family stability.
Come to think of it, EITC expansion is one of the few things about which Republicans and Democrats sometimes do agree. Both President Obama and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) have supported versions of it in the past. And, as it happens, the EITC is at issue in Congress’s current year-end negotiations over extending various temporary tax breaks, mostly for business and special interests. Specifically, the Obama administration is pushing to make permanent a provision, first enacted as part of the 2009 stimulus bill, that enabled married, two-income couples to receive the full EITC even if their combined income exceeded that of a single working parent by $5,000. We can’t think of any policy more consistent with the spirit of the AEI/Brookings report than this protection against an EITC “marriage penalty.” It could be one of the few bright spots in a bill that otherwise shapes up as a monument to politics as usual.