As America recovers slowly from the Great Recession, many of our fellow citizens remain mired in poverty. Economic trends, cultural changes, and changes in family and marriage patterns are combining in new ways that make it harder for those born on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder to lift themselves up. Poverty is changing, and policy responses must change too.
One ray of hope is that Republicans and Democrats are increasingly talking about the intertwined problems of poverty and opportunity. But even if all agree that America must act, our growing political polarization and legislative gridlock make action seem ever less likely with each passing year.
The only way forward, we believe, is to work together. No side has a monopoly on the truth, but each side can block legislative action. We therefore created a working group of top experts on poverty, evenly balanced between progressives and conservatives (and including a few centrists). We obtained sponsorship and financial support from the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and the Ford Foundation. We worked together for 14 months, drawing on principles designed to maximize civility, trust, and open-mindedness within the group. We knew that the final product would reflect compromises made by people of goodwill and differing views.
This is our report. In addition to the political diversity of its authors, our report is unusual in a second way: it is based on shared values. While working together, we discovered that the key to our cooperation was to recognize that policy is often infused with moral values, and we identified three that we believe all Americans share: opportunity, responsibility, and security. We explain these values in the first chapter of the report, and we show how our recommendations will help America and its citizens live up to these values. In Chapter 2, we offer a state-of-the-art review of what we know about poverty in America today, including several alarming trends that current policies either are not improving or are actively making worse.
The third way our report is unusual is that we identify three domains of life that interlock so tightly that they must be studied and improved together: family, work, and education. In brief, we make 12 recommendations:
To strengthen families in ways that will prepare children for success in education and work: 1) Promote a new cultural norm surrounding parenthood and marriage; 2)Promote delayed, responsible childbearing; 3) Increase access to effective parenting education; and 4) Help young, less-educated men and women prosper in work and family.
To improve the quantity and quality of work in ways that will better prepare young people—men as well as women—to assume the responsibilities of adult life and parenthood: 1) Improve skills to get well-paying jobs; 2) Make work pay more for the less educated; 3) Raise work levels among the hard-to-employ, including the poorly educated and those with criminal records; and 4) Ensure that jobs are available.
To improve education in ways that will better help poor children avail themselves of opportunities for self-advancement: 1) Increase public investment in two underfunded stages of education: preschool and postsecondary; 2) Educate the whole child to promote social-emotional and character development as well as academic skills; 3) Modernize the organization and accountability of education; and 4) Close resource gaps to reduce education gaps.
In our final chapter, we discuss the costs of our proposals and how the nation might pay for this comprehensive approach to reducing poverty and enhancing opportunity. We close with a call for America to live up to its noble identity and highest values, or, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “to clear paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.”