Realism trumps purism: Ideas from Brookings and AEI to cut poverty and promote opportunity

“People don’t work across political divides anymore…compromise is an outdated virtue…polarization is triumphing”: these are the standard cocktail hour complaints in Washington, D.C. There are in fact some more hopeful signs from Congress on this score, and a new report published today by Brookings and the American Enterprise Institute offers ideas for policy-makers inclined to seize the moment.

The report, Opportunity, Responsibility, and Security: A Consensus Plan for Reducing Poverty and Restoring the American Dream, is the result of a year’s work by scholars of different ideological stripes and interests. (Watch a video of the launch here.) It is fashionable to describe such efforts as ‘bipartisan.’ But political life or policy debates rarely bisect neatly along political lines. I was delighted to be a member of the group, and I don’t think it is breaking any confidences to reveal that while many deals were done across traditional ideological lines, in many cases there was as much diversity of views on one ‘side’ as there was between the two.

The common characteristic of the highly diverse group is that they were realists, rather than purists. We all took evidence very seriously. We agreed that policy matters. And we agreed that we needed to agree to compromise.

This realist spirit contrasts with purists on both political extremes: those on the right who simply see government as the problem, and fantasize about sweeping away vast swaths of institutional architecture and funding, and those on the left who imagine that simply taking money from some and giving it to others will cure society’s ills. The purists can dream of an American flat tax or a global wealth tax. Our realist group got down to business.

Six realistic policies

Here are six of the ideas contained in the report which could make a serious dent in poverty:

  1. An increase in the minimum wage (“large enough to substantially improve the rewards associated with work among the less-skilled”).
  2. Tougher work requirements in welfare, especially for TANF and SNAP recipients
  3. More charter schools 
  4. More resources to help low-income students to and through college 
  5. A clear public commitment to the importance of marriage for raising children
  6. Greater access to contraception and parenting support

You won’t like some of these, no doubt. The same can be said of each of the 15 members of the group. But taken together they might move the needle on poverty and opportunity.

It is often easier and more eye-catching, especially in a partisan town, to be a purist. But if we want to get things done, the virtue that is required is the quieter but more powerful one of realism.