Elizabeth Rigby teaches at George Washington University, and she warns that what worked in the presidential campaign — pitting “rich against poor” — won’t work when it comes to policy.
“Many thought that alleviating poverty would be an explicit priority for our 44th president, a former community organizer, our nation’s first black president and a self-declared ‘lifelong advocate for the poor,’ but it was not,” she wrote last week for the Huffington Post. “Now, with a second term, President Obama has another opportunity to advance the issue of poverty on the political agenda. Many are calling on him to do so. But he should not.”
Why? Because this is no time to further divide the country.
“Focusing on the 15 percent of Americans living in poverty could simply fuel conflict and resentment between those on each side of the poverty line,” she warns. “In fact, the potential for backlash is particularly high at a time like this, when the nation is focused on scarcity, debt and uncertainty and polarized by conflicting notions of the role of government. Most importantly, there is absolutely no need to incite an ‘us vs. them’ dynamic between poor and middle-class Americans.”
There’s a better way: move the focus to opportunity, rather than entitlement.
“These two groups must join together in shared outrage at the limited opportunities for social mobility in this country,” Rigby said. “There are simply not enough ways to move up and far too many ways to fall down.”
She overstates portions of her case — for example, she warns that “our broken ladder of opportunity and shredded safety net make it so hard to rise out of poverty and beyond the middle class.”
In fact, our safety net is stronger and more broadly cast than it’s ever been. Federal and state unemployment compensation can now last for years, rather than months. The food stamps program is serving more people than ever, and an Obama directive last year allowed for states to loosen work requirements for welfare recipients.
But she’s entirely correct that our “ladder of opportunity” is shaky and has more than a few broken rungs.
That ladder is education. Every study shows that education is the most effective means of alleviating poverty.
Fixing education, therefore, is a real “war on poverty.” That’s not going to be easy, and Democrats will have to face down their own — the teachers unions — but it’s not impossible.
“Even small changes are hard-fought, leaving the president’s political capital depleted and his powerful opponents further mobilized to defend their advantage in the next round of the policy fight,” she observed.
Rigby is right. Redistributionist policies and even language will do little to help the poor. They merely create unhelpful division.