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.”