Reformicons on Social Mobility: 3 Cheers and 3 Fears

Reformicons sound like the mechanized characters of a summer movie, but in fact, they are “reform conservatives” (a term coined by Brookings’s own EJ Dionne). Profiled over the weekend in the New York Times, the group is seen by many as the vanguard of a new, moderate-sounding, policy-inclined Republican Party.

We’ve featured some Reformicons on this blog: Scott Winship on upward mobility; Yuval Levin on bottlenecks in opportunity; Andrew Kelly on the role of higher education. When it comes to social mobility, there is both good news and bad news from the Reformicon camp.

Reformicons on Social Mobility: Three Cheers

  1. There is a direct role for government in combating unemployment. The Reformicons are breaking away from a traditional laissez-faire attitude to the labor market. Michael Strain in particular has advocated greater government support for the long-term unemployed, including wages subsidies.
  2. Relative social mobility matters. Unlike many conservatives, who see worrying about relative intergenerational mobility as social engineering, some of the Reformicons, especially Winship, are worried about the lack of relative upward mobility from the bottom of the income distribution. Peter Wehner, in Room to Grow (the Reformicon mini-manifesto) describes upward mobility ‘as the central moral promise of American economic life.’
  3. College Reform is Key. In the U.S., college costs too much and delivers too little for too many. As Kelly has written, the barriers to middle-class children attending college are rising, and reforms to student financing, access and alternatives to college are vital.

Reformicons on Social Mobility: Three Fears

  1. Socially conservative views on contraception and abortion cannot be ignored. Reform conservatives know that conservative positions on social issues are not election-winners. But it looks as if their decision is simply to downplay these positions, rather than change them. As Isabel Sawhill has argued, the ability to control fertility is a social mobility issue: the Reformicons can’t just duck it.
  2. Civil Society cannot replace public policy. The Reformicons are less hostile to the idea of public policy than many of their GOP compatriots. But their political philosophy still relies too heavily on a utopian view of the role of civil institutions, or what Levin – in a superb contribution to Room to Grow – calls ‘the complex social topography of the space between the individual and the government’. Nobody can be opposed to a stronger civil society, but civil society does not have the power to turn around the poorest neighborhoods, particularly not within the timescales that matter to the children being born in them today.
  3. The UK’s Universal Credit should be Anti-Reformicon. Winship reports on Paul Ryan’s enthusiasm for the UK’s Universal Credit which integrates multiple benefits into a single system. The UC has had huge implementation problems, but the real point is that it has required strong centralization and a massive government IT project – hard to square with the decentralizing Reformicon philosophy.

The Reformicon group is one to watch, for sure. Just how seriously they take the social mobility challenge is yet to be seen.