Going on the Offensive Against Poverty in America

Nov 14, 2012Georgia Levenson Keohane

As part of our series "A Rooseveltian Second Term Agenda," suggestions for how Obama can get serious about combating poverty.

As part of our series "A Rooseveltian Second Term Agenda," suggestions for how Obama can get serious about combating poverty.

Hurricane Sandy’s violence was a tragic reminder of some important truths in American life: climate change matters, government matters, and caring for the vulnerable – for those severely afflicted by circumstances beyond their control – not only matters, it is the essence of who we are as a people. Today, our country’s vulnerable include the 46 million people – nearly one in six – who live in poverty, and 16 million of those are children. This deprivation is particularly grievous in context: earnings for the wealthiest continued to grow last year, while income for the rest stagnated or fell. These levels of poverty and inequality are not only unconscionable, they threaten our economic security.  When it comes to fighting poverty, what do we make of the Obama team’s record and, more importantly, what should be its priorities for the next four years?

The Poverty of the Debate on Poverty

Poverty’s notable absence during the campaign season disappointed and galvanized many progressives who hoped to insert the issue into the election platform and political debates. Those concerns echoed earlier remonstrations that that the president had failed to address poverty over the last four years with the passion or federal muscle promised in his 2008 campaign. “Barack Obama can barely bring himself to say the word ‘poor,’ Bob Herbert wrote this spring in The Grio. Paul Tough, Herbert’s public conscience heir at the New York Times, explains the political conundrum behind the administration’s focus on the economic woes of a broader set of struggling Americans rather than on the poorest per se: “how do you persuade voters to devote tax dollars to help the truly disadvantaged when the middle class is feeling disadvantaged itself?”

While we may long for the soaring rhetoric of 2008, the fact is these broad-based policies have worked. They have not eradicated poverty, but many important domestic programs – the stimulus, in particular, which included new and expanded tax credits, enhanced unemployment insurance, and increased eligibility for food stamps – kept an estimated seven million out of poverty and cushioned against even greater hardship for more than thirty million people already below the federal threshold. Not to mention that health care reform extended coverage to tens of millions of uninsured Americans (in part by expanding access to Medicaid). The federal poverty measure does not take into account non-cash transfers, including food stamps, housing subsidies, and health care benefits like Medicare and Medicaid. When these are factored in, it appears as though poverty has not increased under Obama’s tenure.

Pivot from Defense to Offense

When it comes to a new kind of war on poverty, the Obama administration must recognize that it now has the freedom – and, arguably, an electoral mandate – to address need in this country in ways that serve the struggling middle class and target programs and policies to help the poor. This is not an either/or proposition. And of course job creation is the primary lever: there is no better way to help all Americans in the next four years and beyond.

In terms of programs to address persistent poverty, however, Obama’s second term agenda must pivot from defense to offense, graduating from “could have been worse” blood staunching to an even greater commitment both to long-term investments in human capital and interim supports that shield children and families from some of the most severe privations of life in poverty.  Here are three places to begin:

(1)  Redouble investment in comprehensive and community-wide approaches to fighting poverty. Tough laments that, while in 2008 Obama called for “billions” for programs like Promise Neighborhoods that are modeled on Harlem Children’s Zone’s and provide a broad swath of interventions for poor children and their families, the administration to date has spent just $100 million on pilot programs in 37 communities across 18 states. Ongoing and expanded support for these kinds of holistic programs in cities across the country would make for a sound investment in human potential, using federal structure and funds to support local and community generated solutions.

(2)  Commit more fully to investments in high quality early childhood education and childcare, which yield substantial returns in the school success and life prospects of low-income children and their working parents. This means expanded tax credits and other financial supports for families paying for childcare. It also means increased funds for proven programs like Head Start and Early Head Start, particularly when state governments across the country, with budgets in crises, have been forced to cut Pre-K programs. Head Start and Early Head Start are chronically underfunded and therefore do not reach many eligible families.

(3)  Reform welfare reform, so that it provides real ‘safety’ for poor families in tough economic times. Although it has long been touted as a success of the Clinton administration, the 1996 welfare reform, which devolved much of TANF to the states and linked cash assistance to stringent work requirements, was structurally flawed. First, it was not indexed for inflation (and is funded at its 1996 level). Second, as a block grant it leaves poor people dependent on (now) cash-strapped states for support. Third, the original work requirements were predicated on the existence of work, not on the stubbornly high unemployment rates of this recession. The federal government must reclaim a greater role in the redesign and provision of temporary assistance for needy families to help keep them out of extreme poverty in the way it has done with other critical strands of the safety net like food stamps and unemployment insurance.

With this second term, the Obama administration has the chance to broaden opportunity and to make vital advances in the fight against poverty.  

Georgia Levenson Keohane is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

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All Aboard the Pro-Government Bandwagon

Nov 13, 2012Jeff Madrick

Cracks are beginning to show in conservatives' opposition to government, but progressives still need to make the case for higher tax revenues.

So now everyone is climbing aboard the government-is-necessary bandwagon. I use as my litmus tests David Brooks and Ross Douthat, conservative op-ed columnists of The New York Times.

Cracks are beginning to show in conservatives' opposition to government, but progressives still need to make the case for higher tax revenues.

So now everyone is climbing aboard the government-is-necessary bandwagon. I use as my litmus tests David Brooks and Ross Douthat, conservative op-ed columnists of The New York Times.

To myself and my colleagues, who have been fighting this battle for some time, the Johnny-come-latelys, even among the Democrats, are welcome. I wrote a book called The Case for Big Governmentpublished in 2008, based on lectures I gave back in 2006. A few years before that, I wrote a speech for Senator Ted Kennedy on this subject, largely with historical references about what government did for America in the preceding 200 years, that he gave to considerable notice from his own senatorial colleagues. I was writing a monthly column in The New York Times before that, which persistently sounded this theme. I can’t remember many of the editors being enthused. When I complained about education decline or lack of good wages, one reporter told me to look at how high a proportion of people now owned a home. Many, if not the vast majority, in the media who covered such matters believed in the new “American model,” not to mention the “Washington consensus" -- that is, deregulation, low taxes, and Wall street hegemony.

The financial crisis, Hurricane Sandy, foreclosures, and ultimately the lack of jobs in a Great Recession have changed some of that. We at the Roosevelt Institute started Rediscovering Government with enthusiastic support from Roosevelt’s management and similarly enthusiastic financial support from Bernard Schwartz and a couple of others. We plan to keep sounding the theme about restoring faith in government and take the program to a new level in 2013, bearing down in particular on government and jobs.

Meanwhile, some traditional Republican voices are sounding a bit more constructive about government than they used to. Make no mistake, they are still hesitant, but the language is changing.

David Brooks is now talking about how the big-government-versus-small-government argument is no longer that relevant. He suggests it’s because of the changing composition of the American voting public. “The Pew Research Center,” he writes, “does excellent research on Asian-American and Hispanic values. Two findings jump out. First, people in these groups have an awesome commitment to work. By most measures, members of these groups value industriousness more than whites. Second, they are also tremendously appreciative of government. In survey after survey, they embrace the idea that some government programs can incite hard work, not undermine it; enhance opportunity, not crush it.”

Now, don’t be surprised the Brooks twists American history into something so simplistic it is unrecognizable in order to make the Asian and Hispanic electorate sound like an unprecedented cultural shift in the nation. He says the old Protestant nation had disdain for government and now they are—so he implies—losing their influence. He of course does this kind of simplistic reading of American history from time to time. Who supported the great progressive revolution of the 1930s well before the Asian and Hispanic rise? This kind of idea—that culture explains so much—is generally dangerous.

But the point here is that Brooks is now saying Republicans have to get off the anti-government kick. He goes on: “Moreover, when they look at the things that undermine the work ethic and threaten their chances to succeed, it’s often not government. It’s a modern economy in which you can work more productively, but your wages still don’t rise. It’s a bloated financial sector that just sent the world into turmoil. It’s a university system that is indispensable but unaffordable. It’s chaotic neighborhoods that can’t be cured by withdrawing government programs. For these people, the Republican equation is irrelevant. When they hear Romney talk abstractly about Big Government vs. Small Government, they think: He doesn’t get me or people like me." 

Well, that’s a heck of a breakthrough, even if argued on spurious grounds about how more and more Americans don’t have old-fashioned American cultural roots. Let’s just get away from the cultural stuff. Who elected Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson before Hispanics voted? Who backed the progressive income tax at the start of the 20th century?

Anyway, the conservative punditry is shifting. Ross Douthat, the other conservative regular on the Times op-ed page, has a firmer grasp of historical context than does Brooks. He only partly buys into the “demographic excuse,” as he puts it. As he says, “Republicans are also losing because today’s economic landscape is very different than in the days of Ronald Reagan’s landslides. The problems that middle-class Americans faced in the late 1970s are not the problems of today. Health care now takes a bigger bite than income taxes out of many paychecks. Wage stagnation is a bigger threat to blue-collar workers than inflation. Middle-income parents worry more about the cost of college than the crime rate. Americans are more likely to fret about Washington’s coziness with big business than about big government alone. “

And he recognizes that Hispanics are not a one-issue demographic group. A simple change in immigration policy won’t win them over to the Republicans. He importantly concedes that Latinos tend to see government more as an ally than a foe. And increasingly others in his political camp are talking that way. He notes, “As the American Enterprise Institute’s Henry Olsen writes, it should be possible for Republicans to oppose an overweening and intrusive state while still recognizing that 'government can give average people a hand up to achieve the American Dream.' It should be possible for the party to reform and streamline government while also addressing middle-class anxieties about wages, health care, education and more."

And now some conservatives are even saying the Republicans should give up their resistance to higher rates on upper income Americans. Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard made headlines when he said just that the other day. 

Glenn Hubbard, a former Romney adviser, says we can raise taxes on the rich by putting caps on deductions like mortgage interest, charitable contributions, and business provided health insurance. This deduction cap is gaining adherents among Democrats. But the devil here is in the details, and when one reads more closely what Hubbard has to say, one sees the dangers if one thinks the battle is won. By no means.

One issue is the refusal to raise income tax rates themselves, say the top bracket to 42 or 43 percent. Hubbard claims this reduces incentives. This was the same argument Martin Feldstein made when he said Bill Clinton’s income tax rate increase on the rich would hurt the economy. The Clinton boom soon followed. There is no accepted evidence that higher rates on the rich would dampen economic growth. A research report to that effect was completed and about to to be published by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, and it was suppressed by the Republicans.

The more important point Hubbard makes is that most deficit-cutting should be accomplished by reducing government spending, not tax increases. And to him this necessarily means cutting the safety net and, probably, public investment.

Hubbard makes the critical point, however, as much as he disagrees with it. If Americans wants a bigger government, most Americans, not just the rich, will have to pay. But a lot more of the taxes can come from the rich than he admits. There’s a lot of room to raise taxes in America compared to tax bites in other rich nations. 

The battle for an active, constructive use of government will remain a tough one, even as the conservatives start compromising modestly. And the fight should ultimately be over tax increases, once the economy starts growing rapidly again (and not until then!).

So, for those of us who believe in the constructive purpose of government, we have to show how higher tax revenues can be put to critical work. We can do that. 

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick is the Director of the Roosevelt Institute’s Rediscovering Government initiative and author of Age of Greed.

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The Fight for Health Care Reform Isn't Over Yet

Nov 13, 2012Rahul Rekhi

As part of the "Millennial Priorities for the First 100 Days" series, a call for President Obama to finish the health care overhaul he began with the Affordable Care Act.

As part of the "Millennial Priorities for the First 100 Days" series, a call for President Obama to finish the health care overhaul he began with the Affordable Care Act.

While the principle focus of this year’s presidential campaign was clearly the economy, the election carried more profound implications for the future of American health care then any other area of policy. The choice was clear: would we see the reaffirmation of the Affordable Care Act and with that, an opportunity for its provisions to be phased in at last? Or would we see a rapid repeal and systemic overhaul under the ascendant Romney administration? With the reelection of President Obama, the signature health care legislation of his first term is secure. But to truly reform our health care system, he still has much more work to do in his second term.

Because of President Obama’s historic win, he will be able to fully implement provisions that extend health coverage to over 30 million Americans, end denial of care on the basis of pre-existing conditions, and allow young Americans nationwide to remain covered while continuing their education. But despite this leap forward, significant challenges to our health care system remain. Though the Affordable Care Act tackled the coverage problem, concerns about ever-rising health care costs--and the concomitant budgetary pressures--remain at the forefront. Moreover, debates about end-of-life care, prevention, and the proper role of medical technology in our health care system remain unresolved.

Some of these health policy concerns will take years to tackle. Others must necessarily extend beyond even President Obama’s term limit. But there should be a particular focus on issues regarding health science and technology that we must tackle in the first 100 days, while the electoral mandate remains clear.

The consensus among health economists of all stripes is clear: medical technology is the single most significant driver of rising health care costs in America. These advancements, while making significant gains in extending our lifespans and improving the quality of life for the U.S., simultaneously impose significant cost burdens and threaten the fiscal sustainability of our health care system. The Affordable Care Act takes steps to address this concern, most notably by funding so-called “comparative effectiveness research,” a systematic means of assessing the therapeutic efficacy of clinical treatments and weeding out those that exhibit no health benefits despite their substantial costs. This isn’t rationing—it’s rational.

However, due to political pressures, “Obamacare” contained no provision or mechanism for the results of such comparative effectiveness research to be implemented in a meaningful way. Even the one model that it did call for—the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a “Federal Reserve” of medicine—has been effectively neutered by congressional officials and only served an advisory role. If we are to truly and systematically address the cost burdens of health technology in a meaningful way, what we need is a form of health technology assessment, such as the one pioneered by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence in the United Kingdom. Until then, we will have a patchwork policy at best, and a downright nonexistent one at worst.

Realizing the benefits of these technologies will also necessitate a regulatory overhaul. Despite (occasional?) failures and controversies, the Food and Drug Administration deserves great acclaim for helping to ensure the safety of the American patient for the last century. But the critical nature of this mandate does not obviate the benefits that could be derived from a deep overhaul of the FDA approval process. For instance, there is ample opportunity to bring the FDA into the 21st century, with opportunities to authorize statistical modeling techniques that allow for smaller, leaner, and quicker clinical trials guidelines, and by mandating that the results of all drug trails be published online. These are measures with potentially broad bipartisan support.

Policy has also fallen short in the development of these technologies. Case in point: funding for the National Institutes of Health has largely remained flat in recent years, even under the Obama administration. Yet the importance of biomedical research in maintaining America’s edge in innovation cannot be overstated. It’s no coincidence that over half of the Nobel Laureates in medicine have come from within our borders; it is this edge on health science and technology that has allowed life-saving treatments such as statins, angioplasty, and MRIs into the clinic. As other nations begin to ramp up their investments in biomedical research, it is critical that the U.S. not lose its position of global leadership.

These health policy areas represent means for the president to reaffirm his vision for our health care system. Admittedly, with a looming fiscal cliff, persistently high unemployment, and issues of energy and immigration beginning to enter the national spotlight, turning back to health care may carry with it great political risk. However, while the Affordable Care Act was initially highly polarizing and contentious across the electorate, there is emerging evidence that as its provisions are phased in, support among Americans is growing—and fast. Reaching across the aisle early with these bipartisan policies to further advance our nation’s health care can cement the president’s principle legacy, setting the tone for another transformative term. Ultimately, their impacts will extend well beyond the next 100 days or even the next two years, for the path to a truly 21st century health care system lies ahead.

Rahul Rekhi is a student at Rice University and the Senior Fellow in Health Care Policy for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.


Barack Obama image via Shutterstock.com.

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Voters Demand a Progressive Second Term Agenda

Nov 13, 2012Felicia Wong

As part of our series "A Rooseveltian Second Term Agenda," a call for progressives to seize the moment after Election Day.

As part of our series "A Rooseveltian Second Term Agenda," a call for progressives to seize the moment after Election Day.

Last week’s election results weren’t just a win for the president. Across the board, voters went to the polls and registered their support for progressive values, supporting needed tax increases, passing marriage equality for gay and lesbian Americans, and giving a candidate who ran on a platform of proactive government and a strong safety net a second term. The message was clear: despite an economy that continues to recover too slowly, the direction that progressives are taking the country in is the right one.

The polling we have done with Democracy Corps makes it plain – voters don’t want austerity or cuts in Medicare and Social Security. They want to fix the economy with long-term investments in infrastructure and a focus on jobs. And they want solutions – like raising taxes on the well-off and reforming the financial industry – that can raise the revenue to pay for it. As Hurricane Sandy made apparent, we need to update the country’s infrastructure, and we can put people back to work doing it.

So our job has just begun. Now is when we really have to roll up our sleeves and work to achieve an ambitious agenda. The politics won’t necessarily be much easier than they were over the last four years. But with a Democratic president, a Democratic majority in the Senate, and an electorate strongly behind us, progressives have an opportunity to seize over the next four years.

Over the next few weeks, Roosevelt Institute Fellows and staff will weigh in with their thoughts on what our national agenda should look like. While we might differ on some of the specifics, we all agree on basic values and goals: reducing inequality, creating jobs, kick-starting economic growth, building a community among the American people, and regaining trust in both the private sector through functioning markets and in the government and our political system.

On the eve of a second Obama term, and with some fundamental economic and political choices before us, we are proud to be in this historic moment together, Our goals are ambitious. We believe that our ideas can have real impact. As President Franklin Roosevelt put it 80 years ago, “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation.” Nothing could be truer of our times. Progressives must lead the way.

Felicia Wong is President and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute.

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Roosevelt Reacts: What Does Last Night Mean and Where Do We Go From Here?

Nov 7, 2012

President Obama won a second term. How did he get there? And what should he do now? Roosevelt weighs in.

Thomas Ferguson, Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow, Professor of Political Science, University of Massachusetts, and Contributing Editor, AlterNet:

President Obama won a second term. How did he get there? And what should he do now? Roosevelt weighs in.

Thomas Ferguson, Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow, Professor of Political Science, University of Massachusetts, and Contributing Editor, AlterNet:

Now that it’s over, it’s time to take stock. All counts are incomplete, but something like 116 million votes were cast. The presidential election alone cost about $2.6 billion, or a bit more than $22 dollars per vote. But that money wasn’t spread evenly over America; in battleground states like Ohio, the sums per voter were much larger. Now look at the exit polls in today’s New York Times. Yes, indeed, Obama did very well among women, Latinos, and African-Americans. But in sharp contrast to 2008, the partisan split along income lines is huge. Obama’s vote percentage declines in straight line fashion as income rises. He got 63 percent of the votes of Americans making less than $30,000 and 57 percent of those making between $30,000 and $50,000. Above $50,000, the Other America kicks in. Romney won 53 percent of the votes of Americans making between $50 and $100,000 and 54 percent of the votes of Americans making above $100,000. The Democrats’ poor showing in the House elections – they way under-performed for a party that had lost so many seats two years before – probably reflects a Republican advantage in money, including the famous Super PACs, some of which poured resources into congressional races. It was surely also affected by the White House’s reluctance to spend time and resources trying  to elect Democratic House candidates. As the president negotiates for a Grand Bargain in the face of the fiscal cliff, these are realities that are worth remembering

Jonathan Silverstone, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network member and sophomore at Yale University:

In the months leading up to yesterday's reelection of President Barack Obama, both candidates said very little about a critical issue in the ongoing economic recovery: housing. Yet President Obama’s reelection can certainly provide affordable housing advocates hope in the face of some of the things Governor Mitt Romney had to say on the campaign trail. Eliminating the Department of Housing and Urban Development and scaling back key grant programs were just two of the possible policies a Romney administration may have enacted had he won the presidency. While this general direction for the federal government has been avoided, there is a larger issue at hand.

A report by the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness demonstrates just how urgently we need a policy solution to the fundamental lack of affordable housing. It points to HUD figures that show a growing gap between low-income housing demand and current low-income housing stock during a time of increasing rates of homelessness in America. This gap reached 5.5 million units in 2009. The Obama administration must act to ensure demand for affordable housing is met and to assist low-income households in being able to afford this housing.

More immediately, the broad budget cuts constituting January’s scheduled sequestration present the president with a much more pressing housing issue. If Washington does not devise a budget compromise, multiple key housing programs that help fund public housing operations and provide rental assistance to low-income families stand to lose hundreds of millions of dollars. As America looks toward another four years of President Obama, and hopefully toward revamped policy that combines with market incentives to meet affordable housing demand, the lame duck Congress must work with the administration immediately to make sure crucial housing programs remain untouched before we hit the fiscal cliff in January. 

Tarsi Dunlop, member of the Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline in DC:

Now that the election results are in (well most of them are), we can start looking forward to the next four years. It is difficult to figure out where to start, but the first issue will be the rapidly approaching "fiscal cliff." We cannot bask in the glow of the election for long; we must protect the middle class from devastating cuts to essential programs and services. Beyond that, we must advocate for a federal budget that deals with our deficit in a responsible manner over the long-term; we are slowly recovering from the Great Recession, but progress is fragile and many American families are still suffering from unemployment (or underemployment). We cannot afford cuts that will undermine our gradual economic growth, growth that is by some estimates expected to produce 12 million more jobs over the next four years. Building, or in this case re-building an economy, takes time and we won’t turn back now.

This fall, President Obama asked the nation to give him four more years, to continue the work we started in 2008. Other issues that should be on the progressive agenda include protecting and expanding the social safety net for future generations, pursuing policies to reduce our impact on the environment in hopes of addressing the ever-growing threat of climate change (an issue rarely mentioned on the campaign trail), and advocating for responsible policies that will help our nation’s schools provide a quality education for each child. Our efforts to invest in the middle class continue and as we implement the Affordable Care Act, we know we won’t need to defend it against potential attacks from a Romney administration. By 2014, more Americans will feel the benefits of the president’s signature domestic achievement.

President Obama, and the progressive community as a whole, will find powerful allies in the United States Senate come January with Tammy Baldwin’s election as the first openly gay U.S. Senator and Elizabeth Warren’s win in Massachusetts. Indeed, the Bay State has sent another liberal lion to the Senate floor to advocate for policies that help working and middle-class families. These voices will defend a woman’s right to choose and make decisions about her own body. As progressives, we believe in inclusivity and justice for those of all backgrounds, and they will stand for those with no lobby. They will challenge the influence of oil companies and large corporations.  They will push the discussions we should have when it comes to governing and the role of government. It is time to continue that discussion.

However ambitious we are, we must recognize that the work will go on long after President Obama leaves office. The young people who once again broke sharply for the incumbent understand this reality and are rising to the challenge. Although Millennials are faced with dim job prospects, less security in their retirement, and in many cases, high levels of student debt, they are community oriented and civically engaged. They care about the vulnerable children as child hunger rates remain stubbornly high; they care about the dignity and security of our seniors and the mental and physical health of our veterans. They care about our infrastructure and want to see us investing in our nation’s roads, water pipes and public transportation. In 2008, when then-Senator Barack Obama said “Yes We Can,” he meant we, the people. As one man, he (and U.S. presidents before and those to come) cannot create change. We must work toward that change, over the next four years and the next four decades in our communities and local governments. The question we are asking now, one that we should also ask of ourselves, is: what’s next?

Melia Ungson, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Northeast regional coordinator and student at Yale University:

Last night, I breathed a sigh of relief instead of jumping for joy (though, admittedly, there were shouts of excitement). Watching results from other races and ballot initiatives come in, I was similarly relieved to see voters in so many places support candidates and ballot measures to protect equal rights, which will hopefully elevate the discourse.  

Even though I go to school in Connecticut, which had a close senate race, I vote in California, largely because of the propositions, which are often close. In a state known recently for its budget issues and gridlock in the state legislature, the propositions serve as an alternate route for voters to address issues directly. Last night, California voters narrowly approved Prop 30 to help fund education and approved Prop 36 to reform the three strikes law, both exciting victories. However, voters failed to approve Prop 34 to repeal the costly and archaic death penalty and Prop 37, which would require the labeling of genetically engineered foods. California prides itself on being a forward-thinking state at the forefront of technology, environmental policy, and social equality, but voters do not always reflect this with propositions.

With all these election results, good, bad, mixed, or still to be decided, the pressure is on to start getting things done. I was excited that Obama alluded to issues like climate change and LGBT rights in his speech last night, and am hopeful that he and other re-elected or newly elected representatives will make progress on these and other issues come January. Our job as Millennialis is to continue to drive meaningful discourse, continue to put forth our own ideas on how best to work toward a stronger future, and ensure that issues important to young people don't fall by the wayside. 

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What Do We Get Out of Government?

Oct 25, 2012

"Let us not be afraid to help each other -- let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us." FDR said those words in Marietta, Ohio in July 1938, but it's just as relevant today. As conservatives continue to deride every attempt to create progressive change through government as an oppressive socialist takeover, we need to remember that government is nothing more or less than an expression of common initative -- a forum through which we come together to build the things we need to make our country stronger.

"Let us not be afraid to help each other -- let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us." FDR said those words in Marietta, Ohio in July 1938, but it's just as relevant today. As conservatives continue to deride every attempt to create progressive change through government as an oppressive socialist takeover, we need to remember that government is nothing more or less than an expression of common initative -- a forum through which we come together to build the things we need to make our country stronger. In the video below, the Roosevelt Institute's Rediscovering Government Initiative looks at the government's vital role in every facet of society, from encouraging innovation to defending our shores, and at what we can still achieve if we're willing to dream big.

Click here to find out how you can get involved in the Rediscovering Government Roadshow.

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Mythbusters: The Rediscovering Government Edition

Oct 22, 2012

We all know the conservative talking points about government: Big government impedes growth. Social Security is going bankrupt. We need to balance the budget. We've had the idea that government is an economic albatross drilled into our heads through decades of repetition. The problem is, it's just not true.

We all know the conservative talking points about government: Big government impedes growth. Social Security is going bankrupt. We need to balance the budget. We've had the idea that government is an economic albatross drilled into our heads through decades of repetition. The problem is, it's just not true. Check out this new booklet from the Rediscovering Government Initiative to get the facts, plus an illustrated timeline of the government's role in shaping the economy and more information on how you can get involved in Rediscovering Government. Click here to view the booklet in magazine layout.


Capitol image via Shutterstock.com.

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Despite a Strong Debate, Obama Remains Vulnerable on the Economy

Oct 18, 2012Jeff Madrick

The president found his voice in the second debate, but he still needs to make a clearer case for the progress he's made.

There has been entirely too much celebrating about President Obama’s debate performance on Tuesday. He did very well, without a doubt. He won hands down. He didn’t get into the ring cold, and he showed that he knew his stuff—and that Romney really didn’t.

The president found his voice in the second debate, but he still needs to make a clearer case for the progress he's made.

There has been entirely too much celebrating about President Obama’s debate performance on Tuesday. He did very well, without a doubt. He won hands down. He didn’t get into the ring cold, and he showed that he knew his stuff—and that Romney really didn’t.

But the economy remains the ace in the hole for Romney and Ryan. We haven’t nearly recovered in terms of jobs, and that’s a tough fact to slide by. The unemployment rate rose rapidly in Bush’s last term to around 8 percent, then peaked in 2009 at 10 percent and slowly came down to its current level. So we are only back to the start of the Obama term. No one ever won the presidency with a 7.8 percent unemployment rate. And we know, as Romney keeps reminding us, that median family income is awful and that poverty is up.

Everyone knows this, and yet Obama did not have a good enough explanation of how much progress has been made. He sounded defensive. So Obama needs a strong, non-defensive explanation of his achievements, and one way to put it is what would have happened had Romney won the presidency in 2008. You’d have a 10 percent unemployment rate with Romney as president. Poverty would be way up. He’d be blaming Social Security and Medicare for all his problems, and he’s find economists to claim he was right. They might already be cutting these programs forever “in order to save them.” It’s triage -- throw the elderly out of the boat and let everyone else eat the rations. People would be poorer. They would get less health care. Those in poverty would have fewer benefits. Is that the kind of America you want?

Odds are that Romney, if he put the Romney-Ryan plan into effect, would create a bigger deficit, too. That’s actually what we need, but a deficit based on tax cuts will create few jobs. (EPI ran some numbers based on Mark Zandi's multipliers.) And if Romney did close the many tax holes he promises to, recession is almost guaranteed even as your taxes rise.

This concept is tough to communicate in a credible way. It just sounds like economists bickering. But there is a record out there: George W. Bush’s. His central economic policy was tax cuts for the rich, and he produced the slowest job growth of any president since the Depression. Romney will do that again. Promise.

Obama has to be clear: He stopped a depression. He is getting the housing market to come back after the worst devastation since the early 1930s. Employment stopped falling. But he shows hesitation in critical areas. Will he protect Social Security and Medicare? If so, then say so. The other guys will cut it, even gut it. But is he vacillating too much here. The talk about Dodd-Frank doesn’t win him many points because most of America thinks the banks got away with murder. He needs a better way of talking about that. As for Obamacare, he is talking about its good points, but he needs to be bolder still. List them all, and list them fast.

And when he says Romney is lying, which is a deliberate motif of the Republican game plan, don’t say he lied with a smile. Say, "It makes me very sad and disheartened when the governor misleads the American people. It is unfair to you voters. And when challenged, my opponent will come back and tell you again, that’s not what his program is, or he never said that. Be proud of your claims, Governor Romney; don’t back off them to win over some in the middle of the pack. Tell them where you really stand."

Finally, it is critical to be constructive about the uses of government. Tell America the only way the country will succeed and the economy will remain prosperous is if we bring everyone with us. Every American must be able to contribute to the economy with a good education and good health. Every region must have good, dependable transportation. Every part of America must breathe clean air. Government can do that.

Unfortunately, there is no third debate about domestic matters since the next one is on international events. But I bet we get back to the economy in the third debate. I hope so. Democrats have to realize that every time Romney says "just look at the record," they are behind the eight ball. Obama needs a very clear, persuasive statement about how bad the economy was in 2009 and how much he did. He stopped the bleeding. The patient was in the hospital. Who put him there? The Republicans, with the same plan Romney is offering today. The patient is resuscitated. Jobs are coming back. The housing market has turned the corner. Everyone is still getting Social Security and Medicare. And now 30 million more will have health insurance. 

Oops, I've already said all this. Sorry, readers. But why do I have to keep repeating it?

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick is the Director of the Roosevelt Institute’s Rediscovering Government initiative and author of Age of Greed.

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“We’re All in This Together” vs. “You’re on Your Own” Government

Oct 15, 2012Elizabeth Stokes

As the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network begins work on building a Government By and For Millennial America, Elizabeth Stokes defends the idea of government as a steward of the common good.

As the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network begins work on building a Government By and For Millennial America, Elizabeth Stokes defends the idea of government as a steward of the common good.

Despite no specifics on how they will slash taxes and also balance budgets, it is clear that the Romney-Ryan budget plan follows an ideology we've seen before. Seeking to block grant Medicaid and voucherize Medicare, the Ryan budget, endorsed by Romney, fundamentally warps the meaning and purpose of the social safety net. This ideology views government as important not for guaranteeing the collective success of all, but for protecting the individual’s right to make his own success. It views government as important not for creating a framework that meets the needs of all citizens, but for supporting and responding to the needs of the market. And it sees government, if it must offer public provisions, as an entity that works best when its services are farmed out to the private sector.

But this view of government completely ignores its role as steward of the common good. To see why this role is so important, just take a look at the recent financial crisis. It has shown us that macroeconomics is more complex and more unpredictable than our economics textbooks would have us believe. Restricting government’s scope as the precondition of a “freely” functioning market is not enough to make the market provide effectively and justly for all. As the Census Bureau recently reported, even though GDP has grown, 2011 saw huge income gains for the top 5 percent of income distribution, declines for the middle, and stagnation at the bottom. Evidently, the market alone cannot allocate resources in a way that a just democracy demands, nor can it be relied upon to stably ensure the wellbeing of our most vulnerable.

But this is the problem with the Romney-Ryan ideology: it completely misunderstands what a just democracy demands. As Jeff Weintraub puts it, the democratic ideal requires active participation in collective decision-making, carried out within a framework of fundamental solidarity and equality. The Romney-Ryan ideology severely jeopardizes this ideal. How can democracy be fully realized if 47 percent of citizens are viewed exclusively as rapacious moochers and not as fundamental equals in a shared political community? How can self-governance be possible when we fail to guarantee a fundamental baseline for all and let market-generated inequalities distort political equality?

The fundamental equality democracy requires cannot be satisfied by a handful of political rights (not that these mean much anyway given voter suppression efforts). Rather, government must also guarantee what T.H. Marshall would refer to as the social elements of citizenship: equal access to basic essentials that relieve people from the constant struggle for survival and thus provide them with the time and energy to participate in political society as engaged citizens. These basic essentials are not simply an assortment of handouts for the destitute, but are universal and based on generally shared rights of citizenship (the 96 percent know what I’m talking about). Ensuring such a baseline enables us to do away with the artificial distinctions of makers or takers, and instead binds us in a community of mutual sacrifice and success. 

Guaranteeing these social elements of citizenship also entails containing the market and money’s influence so that a person’s life chances and engagement with democracy are not exclusively determined by market position. It is therefore important to have non-market institutions, such as government, direct the market in order to uphold the common good and redress market-generated inequalities. This does not simply mean redistribution policies that tax the rich and give to the poor – after the fact mop-ups via social spending are not enough to make up for the disempowering processes that lead to market-generated inequalities in the first place. Rather, we must also focus on predistribution, i.e. the way in which the market distributes its rewards to begin with (such as regulations that protect consumers and empower workers).

The concept of government as steward of the common good recasts its role in society, seeing it less as a third entity that runs alongside the market economy and the private household but more as a force in the service of the common good that is prior to both and directive of each. Government should act as the framework that both enables and is subject to democratic decision-making in society. It should ensure all people have the minimum they need to participate and engage as citizens and its fundamental direction should be shaped by public voice and societal goals that are collectively and consciously decided.  

Ryan lauds choice, competition, and self-sufficiency as the pillars of his social safety net, implying that marketization will enhance liberty as well as efficiency. However, these words are pure rhetoric and pretense. By putting the market in charge of the common good, he would fundamentally transform basic welfare goods, which are shared in common by all citizens, into commodities, which are bought by individual consumers in a volatile marketplace. While the ethos of social insurance is “we are all in this together, rain or shine,” marketization says to the citizen “here’s some money, you’re on your own.” The Romney-Ryan ideology not only severely undermines one of the most important pillars of government, but also bars those subsets of the population who are reliant on government benefits from the democratic community. 

Elizabeth Stokes is a Working Group Fellow for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's national initiative, Government by and for Millennial America, and a senior at the University of Pennsylvania.


Teamwork image via Shutterstock.com.

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Still No Straight Answers on Social Security

Oct 12, 2012Tim Price

After two debates, progressives are left with more questions than answers about the fate of one of our most important social programs.

After two debates, progressives are left with more questions than answers about the fate of one of our most important social programs.

It’s been a few decades since then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill first referred to Social Security as “the third rail of American politics,” but judging from the way the candidates in this election have avoided the subject, it still has plenty of juice left. There was a brief dust-up last fall when Rick Perry claimed the program was a Ponzi scheme, but his subsequent flameout in the Republican primaries was so spectacular that the details were quickly forgotten. Since then, most of the focus has understandably been on Paul Ryan’s plan to turn Medicare’s guaranteed benefit into a voucher that grandma and grandpa can add to their coupon clippings. If we’re really lucky, sometimes we even get to debate the wisdom of dismantling Medicaid. But in the last two debates, the candidates have made statements about Social Security that raised more questions than they answered and suggested that the program’s future may be in doubt regardless of the election’s outcome.

Aside from the fact that President Obama seemed to have downed an entire bottle of Nyquil before his first debate with Mitt Romney, one of progressives’ biggest gripes about his performance concerned his decision to take Social Security off the table. “You know, I suspect that, on Social Security, we’ve got a somewhat similar position. Social Security is structurally sound,” Obama said last Wednesday, adding that “It’s going to have to be tweaked” but “the basic structure is sound.” That raises two questions: First, do they actually agree, or was Obama overcome by the spirit of compromise that sometimes compels him to give his opponents the benefit of the doubt when they’ve done nothing to earn it? Second, and perhaps even more importantly, exactly what sort of “tweaks” would the candidates support?

Sadly, we didn’t learn the answers to either of these questions, since moderator Jim Lehrer is allergic to follow-ups, but commentators on the left have hazarded a few guesses, and most of them aren’t very optimistic. Writing at The American Prospect, Robert Kuttner makes one of the stronger cases for why we should worry about Obama’s commitment to preserving Social Security benefits. He notes that Romney has pledged no changes to Social Security for those in or near retirement, which carries the unsubtle implication that everyone else is probably screwed. But Kuttner argues that instead of going on the attack, the Bowles-curious Obama “is softening up public opinion to accept very similar cuts” and “giving away what should be one of the clearest differences with Romney.” Dean Baker concurs that “tweak is a code word used by people who want to cut Social Security but lack the courage to say it explicitly.”

While it might be safer to assume the worst, it would be more charitable to read Obama’s comments as an acknowledgment that there are policy tweaks that would genuinely strengthen Social Security. Jeff Madrick provides a good overview of some ways we could extend the program’s solvency without reducing benefits or raising the retirement age. He also notes that Social Security is in no real danger and that fixing its finances is a fairly easy task, even though it’s often lumped in with Medicare and Medicaid as part of an all-encompassing “entitlement crisis.” But raising the cap on payroll taxes doesn’t seem to be the type of tweaking Romney has in mind, and even with no changes the program is projected to pay out full benefits for another 21 years. So why wouldn’t Obama choose to heighten the contrasts instead of conceding the argument before it’s begun?

That question only became more urgent at last night’s vice presidential debate, as Paul Ryan defended his support for privatization. Responding to moderator Martha Raddatz’s comment that “Medicare and Social Security are going broke” (they’re not), Ryan agreed that “these are indisputable facts” (see above) and argued that “if you reform these programs for my generation, people 54 and below, you can guarantee they don't change for people in or near retirement.” Well, that’s great for them, but what does it mean for the rest of us who were sort of planning on growing old one day?

Ryan, who once derided Social Security as a “collectivist system,” is the author of a failed plan that would have transferred some Social Security funds into private investment accounts (more on that in this great piece by Mike Konczal and Bryce Covert). Last night, Ryan again claimed that privatization would “let younger Americans have a voluntary choice of making their money work faster for them,” whatever that means. It’s certainly true that if his plan had come to fruition after he originally proposed it in 2004, their money would have disappeared a lot faster during the financial crisis. Luckily, that proposal became so toxic when President Bush tried to pass it that his own party wouldn’t allow it to come to a vote. That’s probably why Ryan took care to point out that Mitt Romney doesn’t support such a plan. Instead, Romney wants to “slowly raise the retirement age over time,” an extremely regressive policy that would disproportionately hurt the poor people who most depend on Social Security. What a relief.

Biden offered a much stronger contrast on Social Security than Obama did, but he still left some questions unresolved. He stated clearly and firmly that the Obama administration would not privatize Social Security, which is the least we can expect from a Democrat given that the public version is one of his party’s greatest legislative achievements. He also argued that “to cut the benefits for people without taking other action you could do to make it work is absolutely the wrong way,” which is more reassuring but still leaves the administration some wiggle room to accept cuts as part of a Grand Bargain™. It’s certainly a weaker promise than the one he made in August, when he told supporters, “I guarantee you, flat guarantee you, there will be no changes in Social Security” if President Obama is reelected. Thanks, Mr. Vice President, but is there any chance we can get that in writing?

If Social Security wasn’t so essential -- if it didn’t lift millions of elderly people out of poverty, offer peace of mind to all Americans in their retirement, or provide critical survivors benefits that Ryan acknowledges his own family received – it might be easier for progressives to accept this kind of hedging as part of the vagaries of messaging in an election year. But Social Security really is that important, and it has powerful allies arrayed against it in Washington who make little secret of their desire to take an axe to the program. It deserves to have an equally powerful and committed advocate defending it in the White House. It’s clear that Mitt Romney won’t fill that role, especially after he chose the architect of privatization as his running mate and heir apparent. Barack Obama still could, but progressives will have to convince him that there’s no room for ambiguity.

Tim Price is Deputy Editor of Next New Deal. Follow him on Twitter @txprice.

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