Social Mobility: Do Republicans Have a Plan?

Social mobility is now a bipartisan goal. Both the President and leading Republicans have touted its importance. As Senator Rubio says, “if we are to remain an exceptional nation, we must close [the] gap in opportunity.” But Republicans need some lyrics to go with their aspirational music.

Six Republican Themes on Mobility

Right now there appear to be six themes motivating the GOP’s emerging agenda:

  • Reviving marriage
  • Choice and competition, especially in schools and health care
  • Work requirements for food stamps and housing programs
  • Devolving responsibility to states
  • Simplifying both tax and spending programs (e.g., too many training programs)
  • Using civic and religious organizations to empower individuals

If the Republican party spends a little more time fleshing out these policy areas (and a little less time simply opposing the President and his party) they could make some real progress. Many moderate and/or independent voters could be attracted to a center-right, pro-mobility agenda.

5 Steps Republicans Should Take on Mobility

Five steps could give this emerging Republican mobility push broader appeal:

  1. Delink the mobility agenda from fiscal austerity. As long as it is seen as the road to a much cheaper federal government, it will be viewed as budget cutting in opportunity clothes. Smaller and simpler government that helps people climb the ladder isn’t always going to be cheap.
  2. Use carrots as well as sticks. We need to reward good behavior, not just penalize the bad. Work requirements are a stick. A carrot could be a more generous Earned Income Tax Credit or a hassle-free universal benefit at least as generous as what people receive now from a multiplicity of safety net programs.
  3. Reform entitlements. The President has courageously put forward some first steps that could be taken here. We could fund a lot more opportunity-enhancing programs if we slowed the growth of health care costs and social security benefits.
  4. Make sure policies are distributionally progressive, or at least not regressive. Eliminate or limit tax expenditures that mainly benefit the affluent rather than reducing marginal tax rates for the wealthy. Support progressive indexing of Social Security benefits and higher premiums for affluent Medicare beneficiaries.
  5. Do something bold and unexpected. The public wants leadership that goes beyond criticism of the status quo and incremental policy measures. One idea: support the common core educational standards and guarantee a full scholarship to the college of one’s choice for anyone who is a high achiever, but pay for this by limiting Pell grants for those who fall below some acceptable level. This should motivate students to work harder to achieve the grade.

We need a healthy two-party debate if we are to move forward on an opportunity agenda. Right now we are mostly getting lofty language, especially on the Republican side. A start, for sure: but it is time for more specifics.