Monday, December 31, 2007

A Wish for 2008
Last week, during the traditionally molasses-slow news period between Christmas and New Year's, the Bloomberg administration for some reason decided to release a lengthy report from the Center for Economic Opportunity, the anti-poverty group created a year earlier to implement the recommendations of the Bloomberg-appointed Commission on Economic Opportunity. A link to the report is here, and the press release is here.

The report captures what we've seen as the typical Bloomberg approach to governmental problem-solving, as we've seen in every area from crime reduction to education reform to economic development: identify a broad problem, break it down into relatively easy to quantify smaller problems, figure out how you want to define and measure success, then start throwing stuff against the wall and see what sticks. He's trying to do an updated Great Society in miniature, without some of the more wooly-headed aspects of that commendable but flawed endeavor: expansion of childcare and social services from nursing for infants to work internships for disconnected older teens; and, if you squint, an updated notion of welfare itself in the form of the Conditional Cash Transfer model, which creates incentives for impoverished individuals to take actions for the good of themselves and their children.

The right-wingers hate CCT because, as they view it, the model pays people for doing things they should do anyway; the left dislikes it because it's paternalistic and incorporates choices (e.g. what deeds merit cash payments?) that are susceptible to second-guessing. I like it largely because it upsets the extremists on both sides.

But what's going to be really cool about CEO in 2008 is the release of a new methodology for measuring poverty. The guy who's leading this effort is a colleague of mine whom I've admired for many years--he's brilliant and politically fearless. (The new measure will be based in part on this approach from the National Academy of Sciences, if you're curious; the extreme Cliffs-Notes version is that it captures the value not just of income but of work supports like food stamps and the EITC, subtracts the value of work-related expenses like transportation and childcare, takes local cost-of-living differences into account--so "poor" will no longer mean the same thing in Brooklyn as in rural Mississippi--and updates the "line" annually based on real changes in actual expenditures, not the Consumer Price Index.)

If the numbers come out the way I think they will, this should be a major news story that might resonate in the presidential campaign, and will seriously impact the 2009 mayoral race to succeed Bloomberg. In an ideal world, the initial burst of heat will give way to a sustained infusion of light; I'm fairly optimistic about this.

On the programmatic side, however, most of what CEO is trying to do involves efforts to boost the employability and earning power of working or work-able people currently at the margins of the labor market. This is commendable and will be helpful, and it's entirely of a piece with the theory of economic opportunity that has directed the work of the Center for an Urban Future in general and my career, such as it's been, in particular.

The problem is that even if these efforts prove outrageously successful (and are brought to scale from the relatively modest initial investment of public and private funds), it almost certainly won't be enough to make a major dent in the poverty rate. And this in turn gets to the heart of my own problem with the work I do.

It's a very reassuring and comfortable notion that if only we could get everyone the education needed to fight for "good jobs at good wages," poverty would disappear and the other problems of our society--pretty much all of which ultimately hook back to economic disparities--would go away. But the warm fuzzies associated with this view obscure just how unlikely it really is. Prices for the goods and services we associate with "the good life," everything from healthcare to home ownership to sending one's kids to college, continue to rise much faster than earnings, and that will be true even if we dramatically improve the rate of earnings increase through measures such as those CEO is trying.

Perhaps it's a function of my ongoing ignorance about many facets of economics, but the only way I see to fix this is, one, to somehow accomplish serious redistribution of wealth--at the least something that leads to the re-unionization of the private-sector workforce--and two, to re-regulate many of the aspects of the economy that have become totally unfettered over the last 30 years. But I also believe in capitalism, and the problem with this approach is that given human temperament, it's likely to go too far and the cure could easily prove much worse than the disease. (In a global economy, countries that feature more exploitive labor markets will be more attractive to capital, other things being relatively equal, than those with more robust worker protections--and it will be to the relative advantage of those companies to court that capital even while allowing conditions of work that we might consider "exploitive." The same dynamic holds for the regulatory side of the argument.)

Of course, there's a lot of wiggle room between, say, liberalizing the National Labor Relations Board and nationalizing all the corporations. Which I guess is why, despite my own reservations, I do support the incremental approach of CEO, in conjunction with sustained efforts to improve public schools and maintain or improve other services. Maybe this is a conservative approach to a liberal imperative; I dunno. In any event, my top public policy wish for 2008 is that both aspects of CEO's work--to better understand poverty, and to devise effective programmatic responses that ease its effects on the lives of New Yorkers--meet with success and draw national attention.

Happy new year to the AIS readership, all six or so of you.


Paul said...

At the end of the day, if we have been able to make a positive difference in even one person's life, we've made a very big difference indeed. I have no power to make any real difference at the macro level--there's no magic policy bullet. This is something I've learned in the last few years, living in a small town and teaching at the kind of university I teach at. The nice thing is that I can see the difference I've made.

Very soon, I'm going to write at least a blog entry on this.

David said...

Stepped-up production of tangible difference-making is my own personal professional goal this year.