Only Conservatives Value Work and Other Insights From AEI Safety Net Panel

September 22, 2014

A couple of weeks ago, the American Enterprise Institute hosted — and provided most of the members for — a panel discussion entitled “How Conservatives Can Save the Safety Net.” My first thought when I got the invitation was, “Well, they could stop slashing it.”

But I decided to find out what those right-leaning — but not radically right-wing — Republicans had in mind. Not, I’m sorry to say, a whole lot that we haven’t heard before. The panel discussion was nevertheless interesting — in part, as a phenomenon.

AEI, as well as some other Republican-friendly organizations — and some decidedly right-wing Republicans like Congressman Paul Ryan — have decided that the party needs rebranding. This is also clearly the case for some Republican Presidential hopefuls.

So we see a lot of effort invested in coming up with proposals — or the makings thereof — that will convince voters the party truly cares about struggling Americans and would do more for them than Democrats.

Whatever the motives, we who lean leftward have good reasons to look for common ground — the likely results of the upcoming elections among them. And the AEI panel, as well as some earlier trial balloons, suggest there is some.

So the most striking thing to me was how the panelists appropriated to conservatives some basic principles that progressives generally share — and at the same time, shifted us into the opposing camp.

For example, Tim Carney, the panel’s moderator, said that conservatives “value work” — a “major division” between them and “the left.” Other panelists seized on the theme.

Work confers “human dignity,” Scott Wilson said, including work “in the home,” i.e., not for pay. Robert Doar, a fellow AEI scholar and champion of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, didn’t expressly disagree, but added, “We want people to engage in the larger society,” clearly referring to the labor force.

Well, who among us would disagree? And who would disagree with Doar when he said that if work doesn’t pay enough to meet families’ needs, we should “provide support?”

The true divide here is Doar’s advocacy for rigid time limits because they “get people to face up to the need to address their own issues.” He’s also a true believer in sanctions, i.e., benefits cuts (or cut-offs) when parents “don’t behave a certain way.”

“We [in the TANF programs he administered in New York] “treat people as having agency,” while “so much of the left treats them as victims,” implying that we’re not “hopeful for human resources.”

I don’t suppose we’ll find common ground on time limits — or on the notion that dispensing benefits should empower caseworkers to coerce people into behaving however they’re told to.

But saying we don’t recognize the value of work or the multifarious capacities of parents who’ve perforce turned to welfare will hardly promote a conversation on issues of common concern.

One surely ought to be the shortage of decent-paying jobs that people without a college education and/or high-level skills can qualify for — and the relatively little money that most TANF programs spend on “work activities” like job training.

Also that “support” Doar refers to for parents who move from welfare to work, but can’t afford basic living costs, which, for them, include work-related expenses like transportation and child care.

Scott Winship, the lone non-AEI panelist, flagged another (not unrelated) issue. “Upward mobility has basically stagnated,” he said. But, he continued, “liberals overstate parental income” as a factor in the next generation’s chances of moving up the income scale.

Versus what factor(s) he didn’t say. Nor why we should discount the research showing that children born at the bottom of the scale tend to stay there — or pretty near. But might there be factors we could converge on?

For example, he mentioned efforts to move more people into — and through — college. “Preparedness is a problem,” he said. That’s surely the case, though costs also limit both the “into” and the “through.”

Another potential basis for conversation — yes, I know this may surprise you — is marriage. Panelists, as well as some other conservative scholars, have seemingly taken to heart the research showing that marriage promotion programs don’t work.

And they recognize, as one said, that many means-tested programs “unintentionally penalize marriage” because when two people who both have incomes marry, their household income will, in some cases, reduce or altogether eliminate their benefits.

Does this mean that conservatives would support the President’s proposal to make the temporary mitigation of the marriage penalty in the Earned Income Tax Credit permanent? Not a peep from the panelists.

Nor specific answers to what they think conservatives should do about any of the other issues they teed up.

Lots of interesting back and forth. But much of it, I felt, was exploring ways Republicans could talk so as to persuade doubting voters they really do care about the (less than) 47% who don’t earn enough to owe federal income taxes — and that Democrats are a bunch of clueless bleeding hearts.

Hence the deliberately — and misleadingly — divisive rhetoric. Disappointing, especially from an organization that claims to pursue its ideals “without regard for politics.”


Who Are Those Folks Who Don’t Pay Federal Income Taxes?

October 25, 2012

You recall, I’m sure, the 47% of Americans who don’t pay income tax and thus can’t be persuaded to “take personal responsibility and care for themselves.”

Romney’s since said his statement was “completely wrong” — undoubtedly referring to the part that wrote all these people off because the part about 47% not paying federal income taxes is basically correct. Or would be if we substitute “households” for “people.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities dug into data from a Census survey and the Tax Policy Center to find out who they are.

Not surprisingly, 22% of the non-payers are elderly — many of them presumably former low-wage workers now trying to get by on Social Security benefits or very elderly people who now rely on Social Security because they’ve exhausted whatever they had in retirement savings.

But the tax code gives seniors some special preferences. Their standard deduction is higher, for example. And all or some portion of their Social Security benefits may be tax-exempt.

These preferences, plus a credit for those with low incomes help explain why so many elderly filers wind up not owing anything.

Another 17% of the non-payers are students, people who aren’t working because they’re too sick or too severely disabled and some heterogeneous others, e.g., jobless workers, those who retired early (maybe because they couldn’t find jobs.)

Which leaves a surprising 61% who are working, as indicated by the fact that they pay, through deductions, the taxes that go to Social Security and Medicare.

About half of these people don’t pay federal income taxes simply because they don’t earn enough. The standard deduction, plus however many personal exemptions they’re entitled to brings their taxable income down to zero, as Roberton Williams at the Tax Policy Center explains.

Another 30.4% of working families, especially those with children don’t owe federal income taxes because the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit and, in some cases, the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit wipe out whatever tax they’d otherwise owe.

I personally have some difficulty understanding why I should be able to claim a higher standard deduction just because I’ve managed to live past the age of 65.

The tax breaks for working families are an altogether different story.

Anyone, I think, can understand why federal policymakers — Republicans as well as Democrats — decided to give low-income parents an incentive to work instead of relying on welfare benefits.

Also why they expanded the incentives when they ended welfare as we knew it, putting time limits on the benefits and setting the stage for the extraordinarily low level of support they now provide.

What’s difficult for me to understand is why Congressional Republicans — and apparently Romney as well — want to let the EITC and Child Tax Credit revert to their narrower pre-Recovery Act forms.

These, after all, are tax preferences that support core bipartisan values — work, marriage, child rearing, etc.

They also, in and of themselves, reduce the official poverty rate, as CBPP’s analysis of the 2010 Census figures shows.

If their end result is some 11.5 million or so working families owing no federal income taxes, that’s mainly because our policymakers prefer spending through the tax code rather than directly, as outlays in the annual budget.

Has nothing whatever to do with defects in personal responsibility — or, it seems, lead to solid support for the President, though some might say it would if the 47% voted their enlightened self-interest.


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