Tuesday, January 6, 2009


"...[T]he new president should focus instead on how to establish goals that measure our progress toward an inclusive economy that works for all of us."

Margy Waller,'Reducing Poverty' is the wrong goal, Philadelphia Daily News, January 5, 2009.

I'm afraid the driving goal for President-Elect Obama's domestic policy in the next few years will be to get economy back to where it was a year or so ago, minus the foreclosure crisis. Since last summer its been fairly clear that "saving the middle class" has become synonymous with fighting poverty and advocating for more inclusion. Just look at the new Task Force on the Middle Class.

There's certainly broader inclusion of a sort in the current stimulus/recovery proposal than a focus on aiding low-income families. In fact, there's legitimate concern about whether there will be strong-enough targeting of jobs for low-income jobseekers and workers.

Railing against a "poverty focus" seems counterproductive and increasingly irrelevant in today's policy context. We want a fairer distribution of opportunities and resources for everyone, especially for those left out. We should really be joining forces. And, let's admit that "inclusion" has its own communication problems -- like redistributionist, class warfare, social engineering, etc. Evoking Europe as a model never quite works for us Americans.
The poverty/inclusion debate is useful rhetorical practice to a degree. I suspect the real opportunity in the next few years is to be extra vigilant about specific legislative proposals and their potential impacts on low and moderate income families and communities.

1 comment:

Margy Waller said...

We agree that the focus in the near term will be on the economy – rebuilding and recovery. I think there is plenty of opportunity in that effort to change the lens – shifting from ‘helping the poor’ to strengthening the labor market and our economy with more good jobs.

For example, while advocates call for eliminating the time limits in the Temporary Assistance block grant funding, Obama wisely responds by calling for structural changes to state unemployment insurance that would make more low-wage workers eligible. That’s a smart pivot and a policy with broad appeal affecting many of the same jobs.

Like Bob, I believe there will be lots of opportunity in coming years to focus on getting the details of specific legislative proposals right. And there are plenty of DC-based advocates who are really, really good at using the data to make sure the legislation responds to their understanding of reality on the ground.

What we lack in DC is leadership for a high-level conversation that reaches beyond our core audience to build support for better policy on low-wage work. And the coming years present that opportunity too – for the first time in a long time we have a leaders who really understands our issues and how to talk about them effectively.

That is why it’s completely relevant to comment on the ongoing advocacy effort for establishing a “poverty goal”.

Focusing on a poverty goal will suck up foundation and human resources on a strategy that isn’t going to work – for all the reasons that I outlined in the op-ed Bob referenced.

And there are still too many foundations and organizations — the Center for American Progress, Half in Ten, Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity – promoting goal setting on poverty.

Moreover, this campaign is not just a waste of resources and energy. It also has the effect of reinforcing the very public understanding of poverty that makes it more difficult to achieve the policy changes we seek.

We also agree that it will be important to develop the public conversation about the concept of inclusion. In face, we’ve proposed (to ahem…some foundations) a research project on how to talk about inclusion in the United States. It will be critical to explore with communications experts what will work here. We also need to develop consensus on how to measure the effectiveness of this national effort.

This two-part approach to adopting a new goal is a much better use of limited resources in the next couple years than the wasteful effort to establish poverty goals.

It does not look like the next President will adopt a poverty goal. But, he might well be very interested in a new and better goal based on social and economic inclusion.