In this holiday season, let’s suppose what might strike some as a miracle, that our Democratic president and a Republican Congress will soon join forces to do something wondrously humane. Let’s suppose they agree to do what actually works to help shove poverty off the American map.
We’ve already had truly effective action in bits and pieces. One significant actor has been President George W. Bush, largely unappreciated as the hero he is for starting a program dramatically reducing homelessness.
He heeded someone who had been working with the homeless for decades and had discovered through firsthand observation that the best answer for their plight was to place them in apartments immediately. This enabled service agencies to offer assistance that counted for something and saved tax money used for more expensive group shelters and such matters as frequent emergency room visits.
The Bush administration, which worked with agreeable localities throughout the country to implement the program, saw amazing results. Over a period from 2005 to 2007, homelessness figures went down by almost a third. Even during the early years of the recent recession, this “Housing First” idea is reported to have shrunk homelessness by another 19 percent. President Barack Obama helped out. He in effect gave Bush a cheer by keeping the effort alive and buzzing.
Obama himself deserves kudos for that and still more for his insistence on demonstrated evidence of effectiveness as a criterion of deciding what social programs to fund.
Such decisions have too often been based on constituency-pleasing politics or genuinely good intentions sadly bereft of astute analysis. Ron Haskins, a Brookings Institution scholar with a Republican background and someone who co-authored a book on the subject (“Show Me the Evidence”), sees enormous potential in using testing as a means of determining what to improve, what to keep the way it is or what to expand.
Many agree that it is absolutely splendid to proceed this way, but some wonder how effective it will be. A Heritage Foundation fellow, David Muhlhausen, has written that just a tiny part of the whole is being tested and that hundreds of billions are still being wasted. He’s dubious that much that’s useless will go away and is cited as arguing for more involvement by states and localities. All of this brings us to Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, and his plan to do strikingly more on the poverty front.
Just like Obama, he wants to test for what works but would do it in a way that could far more likely lead to widespread improvements. He would let states and local governments innovate with a fund consolidated from a variety of different federal welfare programs to help people find work while also assisting them and being constantly watched by third parties. If at first they did not succeed, they would have to try again another way. Haskins is also excited by this plan and what it would do simultaneously: address the infamy of our mass incarceration rates, banish regulations that themselves banish opportunity, take steps to improve education and boost tax credits for working people.
What we need is for Obama and Ryan to begin a process of negotiation and compromise, with Obama bringing more Democrats aboard as Ryan brings more Republicans aboard until finally there is widespread concurrence that would give the disadvantaged a major boost and give the country a far better future.
Hopeful signs? The White House has already sent queries to Ryan about his plan, both sides seem to have at least somewhat similar ideas about cutting corporate welfare to pay extra costs, and Ryan has advised the GOP to prove itself more through positive actions than by slamming Obama. We also once had another Democratic president named Bill Clinton who reformed welfare beneficially in cooperation with a Republican Congress. Pray for the best.
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