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An agenda for reducing poverty and improving opportunity

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SUMMARY:

With the U.S. poverty rate stuck at around 15 percent for years, it’s clear that something needs to change, and candidates need to focus on three pillars of economic advancement– education, work, family — to increase economic mobility, according to Brookings Senior Fellow Isabel Sawhill and Senior Research Assistant Edward Rodrigue.

“Economic success requires people’s initiative, but it also requires us, as a society, to untangle the web of disadvantages that make following the sequence difficult for some Americans. There are no silver bullets. Government cannot do this alone. But government has a role to play in motivating individuals and facilitating their climb up the economic ladder,” they write.

The pillar of work is the most urgent, they assert, with every candidate needing to have concrete jobs proposals. Closing the jobs gap (the difference in work rates between lower and higher income households) has a huge effect on the number of people in poverty, even if the new workers hold low-wage jobs. Work connects people to mainstream institutions, helps them learn new skills, provides structure to their lives, and provides a sense of self-sufficiency and self-respect, while at the aggregate level, it is one of the most important engines of economic growth. Specifically, the authors advocate for making work pay (EITC), a second-earner deduction, childcare assistance and paid leave, and transitional job programs. On the education front, they suggest investment in children at all stages of life: home visiting, early childhood education, new efforts in the primary grades, new kinds of high schools, and fresh policies aimed at helping students from poor families attend and graduate from post-secondary institutions. And for the third prong, stable families, Sawhill and Rodrique suggest changing social norms around the importance of responsible, two-person parenthood, as well as making the most effective forms of birth control (IUDs and implants) more widely available at no cost to women.

“Many of our proposals would not only improve the life prospects of less advantaged children; they would pay for themselves in higher taxes and less social spending. The candidates may have their own blend of responses, but we need to hear less rhetoric and more substantive proposals from all of them,” they conclude.

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