The next crusade for Bill de Blasio

Now that he’s gotten a pile of money from the state to meet his campaign promise of universal prekindergarten in New York City, Ginia Bellafante proposes that Mayor Bill de Blasio turn his attention to babies and toddlers. It’s a great idea, because research shows that pre-K is sometimes too late to compensate for problems that start at birth and even earlier.

The “zero-to-three” movement has no shortage of prominent champions, from Bill Clinton’s 1997 White House conference on brain development to Hillary Clinton’s current involvement in a “too small to fail” initiative; from Rob Reiner’s successful 1998 drive to raise the California tobacco tax and use the proceeds for prenatal and early childhood services, to a Bush administration conference in 2001, to a home visiting program created in the Affordable Care Act signed by President Obama. As governor of Vermont, Howard Dean instituted a highly effective “Success by Six” program involving home visits to new parents, and proposed a national version during his 2004 presidential campaign. Parentsin the state received health care, child care, job training and parenting classes tailored to their needs.

Child abuse in Vermont was cut nearly in half after Dean’s program started. Research on parenting and school readiness suggests the possibility of equally dramatic results in that area. Children whose parents don’t read, talk and interact with them from birth are at an often insurmountable disadvantage by the time they reach prekindergarten.

Bellafante, a columnist for The New York Times, underscores her plea to de Blasio with an anecdote about a pregnant teen who says she doesn’t need books for her baby because “I already have one.”

It’s true that if de Blasio takes up the challenge of advocating for the youngest of children, he’d be one of many public figures to do so. But he’s in the spotlight right now as a result of his campaign promises to refocus the city from quality-of-life issues to the needs of residents who are struggling. If he follows up his pre-K success with a commitment to infants and toddlers, he is likely to generate the types of eye-popping statistics that assure attention will be paid.

Is the minimum wage drive a passing fancy for Obama and his party?

The pop-culture takeaway from President Obama’s campaign-like pep rally in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan is undoubtedly his joke that if Republican policies were on the menu at a deli, they’d be listed as a “stinkburger” or a “meanwich.”

But there was more significance in his fired-up, unbridled performance, which reflected the energy behind the Democrats’ push for an increase in the minimum wage. It’s an issue that unites not just the party but the country, with roughly two-thirds in polls saying they support a three-year rise from the current $7.25 to $10.10 per hour.

Hiking the minimum wage is a populist issue and a women’s issue (nearly two-thirds of those earning minimum wage are women). And though a recent Congressional Budget Office report suggested the boost could cost up to half a million jobs, other indicators are more positive. The best real-life evidence comes from Washington state, where voters approved a minimum wage hike in 1998 and cost-of-living increases after that. The state’s current minimum wage of $9.32 is the highest in the country, yet job growth there has outpaced the national rate, poverty has trailed it, and eateries there have done fine. Other researchers have found no economic disparities between counties that sit side by side in states that have and haven’t raised their minimum wage.

The Senate may vote as soon as next week on whether to raise the wage, and the 60 votes it needs to clear procedural obstacles are not a sure thing. The House is far less receptive. Even the most dedicated proponents of raising the wage are pessimistic. “It has often taken several years and sometimes two or more Congresses until it actually came about,” says Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “I suspect that more likely than not we’ll have a similar situation this time.”

That hasn’t dampened the fervor of the White House. A search of the White House website shows that before Obama’s trip to Ann Arbor on Wednesday, the subject had already come up 59 times since the beginning of the year, in reports, press briefings and presidential remarks, on conference calls and at donor dinners, in a proclamation about Cesar Chavez Day and a tribute to retiring California congressman George Miller. Obama even called for a minimum-wage increase in a column in the Dallas Morning News. In fact, five of the administration’s last seven weekly video addresses were devoted to the minimum wage.

The effectiveness of repetition as a communications technique has been documented in many psychological studies. The more something is said, the more people believe it is true, especially if they aren’t paying close attention. It’s a perfect tool for politics, and the titles of its videos alone show the White House has taken the lesson to heart:

Feb. 15: Calling on Congress to Raise the Minimum Wage

Feb. 22: Time to Lift the Minimum Wage and Give America a Raise

March 8: Time for Congress to Raise the Minimum Wage for the American People

March 22: Rewarding Women’s Hard Work and Increasing the Minimum Wage

March 29: Raise The Minimum Wage – It’s The Right Thing To Do For Hardworking Americans

There’s no question about the political value of this message. Nothing says “I’m on your side” like standing up for low-wage workers. It’s a gritty, symbolic and popular issue, and 50 percent in a new Quinnipiac poll say they’d be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports raising the minimum wage, compared with 25 percent who would be less likely. And there’s no question that the spotlight shined by Obama and others may give some momentum to local and state initiatives to raise the minimum wage.

What is unclear is whether Obama and his party will have the time, energy, resources and focus to continue this push after the most likely outcome, the death of the minimum-wage hike on Capitol Hill. There are still seven months to the election. Four years of Republican messaging on the evils of Obamacare are set to continue through those seven months. Democrats now have an issue and a chance to prove that they, too, have learned the value of repetition.

Will Americans exploit Obamacare or use it to improve their lives? And does it matter?

s-CBO-LOGO-largeThe new Congressional Budget Office report on the Affordable Care Act is highlighting one of the fundamental divides between many liberals and conservatives: their views of human nature at opposite ends of the sentimental-to-cynical spectrum, and their corresponding views of how expansive we should make our safety net.

The report projects a drop in the number of hours worked as a result of Obamacare, and said the reduced hours would be the equivalent of about 2.5 million full-time jobs by 2024. Almost all of the drop would be due to voluntary departures from the labor force. The conservative Family Research Council headlined its analysis “Nice work if you can quit it.” The premise seems to be that Americans are freeloaders who will jump at the chance to quit their jobs in order to get free or heavily subsidized health insurance.

The liberal premise is that the “quitters” would be parents who want to be there for their kids, older people with health problems who’d like to retire before they are eligible for Medicare, people working two or more part-time jobs, and dreamers yearning to switch jobs or start a business.

Both sides are to some extent overstating their cases in cartoon-like caricatures. In the case of the liberals, not everyone will have noble or even good reasons for leaving a job or cutting back hours. Moreover, to the detriment of the economy and the federal budget, not every job-switcher or entrepreneur will be a success. As for conservatives, it’s hard to imagine many people giving up wages, salaries or careers because they can now get insurance without them. Also, whatever happened to popular conservative views that “job lock” is bad, while entrepreneurs and stay-at-home moms (or even dads) are good?

It’s telling that White House economic adviser Jason Furman cited the conservative Heritage Foundation in a response to the CBO report on the White House blog. The 2008 report from Heritage largely praised what it called GOP nominee John McCain’s “ambitious plan” to separate health insurance from employment, thereby breaking job lock and giving more power to families. “Individuals who wish to take a better job, change careers, or leave the workforce to raise a family or to retire early” would no longer risk losing insurance, Heritage wrote; they’d be able to buy a policy and “offset its cost with the McCain health care tax credit.”

The debate played out on my Twitter account this way:

Let’s stipulate there will be churn in the job market, some people will decide work’s not worth it, other people will land their jobs, and we can’t tell whether the Obamacare boom in health jobs will be outweighed by a private-sector bust. Does any of it matter? Not if you believe that all Americans should have health insurance. What does matter is that the Affordable Care Act work as well as possible, for individuals, businesses and the overall economy. In an ideal legislative world, the Pollyanna glasses would be on the shelf and so would the dark assumptions that people will behave badly, and the law would be tweaked as legitimate problems arise.

How money hurts the rich and helps the poor

The New York Times has two fascinating stories today that may not seem related, but they are bookends in the debate about what to do about poverty and income inequality.

One is Sam Polk’s confession that he and his former colleagues on Wall Street were addicted to wealth. In Polk’s telling, no amount of money was ever enough and any public policy that threatened their amassing of more money — new hedge fund regulations or higher tax rates, for instance — was viewed as an unfair outrage. As a former substance abuser, he says, he recognized that he was an addict, as much in need of a 12-step program as anyone susceptible to alcohol or drugs.

It’s an intriguing way of thinking about the phenomenon. Social attitudes and the law have evolved on many issues, such as intolerance for drunk driving. Could the public eventually turn on greed and make it safe for Congress to revamp tax laws to make them more equitable? A historic economic crash didn’t create that kind of pressure. The rich and their wealth, as Polk points out, are still lionized. But he has started a conversation that could help change that.

The other potentially high-impact piece is Moises Velasquez-Manoff’s report on what happened to poor members of a Cherokee tribe in North Carolina when a casino opened and families began receiving stipends. Epidemiologist Jane Costello at Duke University studied the impact of the money — $6,000 to $9,000 per person over the course of her research — and found dramatic improvements among children who moved out of poverty, especially those who were young when the payments began. She noted better parenting and a 40 percent decrease in behavioral problems among the children who started off poor.

These findings reinforce other research that shows the debilitating impact of “scarcity” on the poor, the potential benefits of stress reduction, the vital need for good parenting from birth to age three, and the positive impact of direct payments as opposed to a web of complicated and confusing programs. Lots of academics, think-tankers and politicians are talking about these ideas, including prospective Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan. And that’s a hopeful sign.

The Republican trust gap on poverty

Ryan at Kopp's Frozen Custard, a Milwaukee area chain

Ryan at Kopp’s Frozen Custard, a Milwaukee area chain

With Republicans, it all comes down to spending less money. This is the great credibility obstacle faced by the party and its aspiring presidents as they try to formulate ways to address poverty and shrinking opportunities to move up in life.

It’s true that Democrats seem to always want to spend more and resist pruning programs, and that has resulted in lower ratings from the public when it comes to controlling the deficit. But Republicans are dealing with an empathy gap that is directly related to the economy and could be consequential in a national race. The GOP trailed the Democrats 45 percent to 17 percent in an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll last month on the question of which party does a better job “showing compassion and concern for people.”

The current fight over emergency federal unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless is a real-time showcase. Republicans at first seemed generally resistant to extending the relief, even though there are still three people for every job available and it is traditional to approve the benefits, no strings attached, in those circumstances. The “softer” position now emerging among some is that the expenditure must be offset by a spending cut somewhere else in the budget. The party never made that demand when fellow Republican George W. Bush was in the White House. But now, as usual, it’s all about the money, and never mind the stress created among the long-term unemployed as Congress searches for a way forward.

Former Capitol Hill aide Ron Haskins, a Republican expert on income issues at the Brookings Institution, put the money question to Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, at an Economic Mobility Summit on Monday: Are spending cuts a necessary part of his plans to alleviate poverty? (Watch it here; the question is asked at 1:07).

Ryan’s answer was less direct than Haskins’ question, but the answer that came through eventually was yes. “It has nothing to do with a line on a spreadsheet,” he started off. “It has everything to do with is this working or not.” We can’t measure this, he continued, by “how much money we throw at it.” Throwing less at it, he added, would be a better idea because freedom and free enterprise are “brought forth by keeping government limited.” As the war on poverty stands now, he said, “we’re biting off more than we can chew” and cramping the roles that civil society, private enterprise and individuals should play.

The premise that government should recede as a major force in solving such a profound and complex problem is flawed, but let’s put that aside. Ryan and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, both potential presidential candidates, are saying interesting things about the current safety net and its shortcomings. They lament the uncoordinated, overlapping nature of government programs meant to help, and have ideas for change.

Rubio, in a speech marking the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, proposed putting all the anti-poverty money into “a revenue neutral Flex Fund” and turning it over to the states. He cites all kinds of experiments states are conducting to help get people into work (never mind that President Obama proposed ways to encourage that trend back in 2011). Given the severe disparities in Medicaid, education and other areas when states take the lead, this idea raises concerns, but it’s well worth chewing over.

An even more compelling idea is Rubio’s proposal to replace the Earned Income Tax Credit with a “federal wage enhancement” for low-wage jobs. It would apply to single people as well as the married couples and families covered by the EITC, and it would be synchronized with regular paychecks instead of coming as a year-end lump sum.

Both of these ideas have the potential to reduce complexity and maybe even scarcity, both of which cause mental fatigue that researchers say drains poor people of IQ points and the capacity to make good decisions. The Flex Fund would even rise and fall with slumps and peaks in the economy. But Rubio’s team has indicated the enhanced wage part of the package would be revenue neutral, meaning families could suffer if singles are added. That pesky money question yet again.

At Brookings, Ryan laid out two unassailable criteria for reform, simplicity and standards. He suggested that we look to Britain’s Universal Credit, which collapses six means-tested programs into one overall payment. The Universal Credit tapers off gradually as people’s incomes increase (as opposed to the abrupt loss of help in this country that is, as Ryan suggests, a disincentive to work), and features tougher job-search requirements. The Universal Credit is having its own bungled rollout at the moment – “a rough patch, no two ways about that,” Ryan said – but he called the basic concept “very sound.” It remains to be seen how this works in real life, but early research on direct cash payments to the poor suggests it could be effective. And it certainly sounds like it would relieve stress and logistics problems for beneficiaries.

As for standards, Ryan means work, and most people would probably agree that those who receive government benefits should work if possible. But Ryan didn’t mention that many of these people already do work, nor did he get into the “if possible” part. In some cases people have child-care and transportation needs that make it impractical to work. Most important, and he knows this as well as anyone, there are – I’ll say it again — three people for every available job. Would he be willing to spend federal money to directly create jobs? Because at this point, how else could we get people into slots fast?

The Rubio and Ryan poverty offensives have a number of analysts saying they perceive a sea change in the focus and rhetoric of Republican leaders, and in the prescriptions they are proposing. Ironically, though, Ryan pinpointed the GOP’s core problem when he said that opportunity is all about trust. “Government when used wisely can increase trust,” he said at Brookings. “Where there is trust, there is collaboration. Where there’s collaboration, there is economic growth.”

It’s hard to see how Republican activities foster any of that. House Republicans, including Ryan, voted last fall to cut $40 billion and up to 4 million families off food stamps – while leaving in place huge subsidies to farmers and agribusiness. Ryan’s famous budgets, meanwhile, eliminate major chunks of federal spending, in large part by turning entitlements (everyone who qualifies gets them) into block grants or vouchers (defined amounts of money that almost always fail to increase enough to hold their value).

Some of the ideas coming now from Ryan and other Republicans have potential for bipartisan support and good results for the people they are meant to help, and could even save money in the long run. But they won’t get a serious hearing from Democrats if the upfront goal is to starve and shrink government programs that fight poverty. That’s a prescription for a trust gap.

Safety-net programs are hurting the poor, but not for the reasons you might think

Poverty-related stress causes an IQ loss greater than pulling an all-nighter, according to a book called Scarcity. Economist Sendhil Mullainathan of Harvard and psychologist Eldar Shafir of Princeton, the co-authors, say that goes a long way toward explaining why poor people have trouble making good decisions and plans for the future. They also say that’s good news — because it means the problem is situational, the stereotypes are wrong, and there are remedies.

Those remedies range from keeping it simple (one-stop-shops and direct payments) to first doing no harm (like, for instance, cutting off unemployment benefits to the long-term unemployed, with home losses and all the other hardships that will bring).

For all of you who have ever stayed up too late or all night, you know how you feel the next day. That is, not like tackling big challenges or sticking to disciplined master plans. Policymakers need to keep the scarcity effect in mind at all times as they consider safety-net programs. You can read more about this subject in my new piece at Al Jazeera America.

Can Obama do anything about inequality without Congress?

The president is making it clear how he wants to spend this year and the next two — working on issues like inequality, mobility, wages and jobs. But Congress hasn’t been in a partnering mood the last five years, and there’s not much he can do by himself.

The administration has been able to make substantial headway toward its environmental and energy goals without going through Congress, such as stringent new fuel standards worked out with the 13 major auto companies. Obama also announced 23 executive actions to reduce gun violence after the Newtown shootings, and two more just this month.

His options are far more limited on economic and safety-net issues, a problem I explore in a piece today in The Daily Beast. It’s going to be a tough, uncertain slog, but as White House economic adviser Jason Furman put it, Obama does not intend to devote the rest of his presidency to simply making the Obamacare website “better and better and better and better until it’s just the best thing in the history of humanity.”  In his words: “There’s a lot of other things we want to do.”


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