Democrats Should Be Talking More About Economic Mobility

New report from Third Way focuses on practical solutions to help struggling Americans.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with people during a book signing for her new book, 'Hard Choices' at a Barnes & Noble on June 10, 2014 in New York City. Clinton has published the book in what many believe is the beginning of another bid for the presidency. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
June 15, 2014, 3:56 p.m.

Hil­lary Clin­ton took heat for sug­gest­ing that her fam­ily was “dead broke” after leav­ing the White House, a re­mark that made her look out of touch with the work­ing-class voters she’ll need to woo in a pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. But while her gaffe isn’t likely to res­on­ate bey­ond the book tour, her party faces chal­lenges in de­vel­op­ing an eco­nom­ic mes­sage that’s in tune with the per­vas­ive anxi­ety that non­af­flu­ent Amer­ic­ans face in their daily lives.

So far, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s eco­nom­ic mes­sage has fo­cused on re­du­cing in­come in­equal­ity and rais­ing the min­im­um wage — a poll-tested pitch, but one that doesn’t im­pact the Amer­ic­ans look­ing for work or lack­ing the edu­ca­tion to com­pete in today’s know­ledge-ori­ented job mar­ket. Last week, Obama an­nounced an ex­ec­ut­ive or­der to cap stu­dent-debt re­pay­ments, an is­sue that doesn’t ad­dress the root cause of skyrock­et­ing tu­ition or the chal­lenges fa­cing high school gradu­ates en­ter­ing the work­force who aren’t pre­pared to be­gin a four-year col­lege edu­ca­tion. Eco­nom­ic anxi­ety re­mains high: Most Amer­ic­ans con­tin­ue to as­sess the state of the eco­nomy neg­at­ively, even with the un­em­ploy­ment rate de­clin­ing and the stock mar­ket gain­ing value. A CBS News/New York Times poll con­duc­ted last month shows that 55 per­cent of re­spond­ents rate the eco­nomy in “bad” shape, only 30 per­cent be­lieve it is get­ting bet­ter, and 60 per­cent are at least some­what con­cerned that someone in their house­hold could be­come un­em­ployed.

The cent­rist Demo­crat­ic think tank Third Way hopes to change the con­ver­sa­tion by re­leas­ing a new re­port that fo­cuses on pro­mot­ing eco­nom­ic mo­bil­ity. Seek­ing a middle ground on the po­lar­iz­ing eco­nom­ic policy de­bates, it pro­poses solu­tions to ad­dress the reas­ons be­hind the grow­ing in­come gap — rais­ing stand­ards for pre­kinder­garten pro­grams, eco­nom­ic-based af­firm­at­ive-ac­tion policies, and drug-sen­ten­cing re­form. It’s a doc­u­ment that’s fo­cused on aid­ing the lower class, but its mes­sage is aimed at a broad­er swath of Amer­ic­ans. “Eco­nom­ic as­sist­ance is ne­ces­sary but not suf­fi­cient to en­sure per­meab­il­ity of the low­est quin­tile. Those fight­ing their way up the in­come lad­der also need the op­por­tun­ity to de­vel­op a mo­bil­ity men­tal­ity en­com­passing three key char­ac­ter­ist­ics: “growth, grit, and grown-ups,” the re­port says.

The re­port fo­cuses on us­ing ex­ist­ing gov­ern­ment pro­grams to pro­mote healthy be­ha­vi­ors, from teach­ing pre-K stu­dents how to deal with stress and con­trol their im­pulses, sup­port­ing pro­grams that teach low-in­come par­ents how to take care of their kids, and of­fer­ing job-train­ing classes to re­leased felons to help them trans­ition back in­to the work­place in­stead of lan­guish­ing in the streets.

“It talks about how we can use the safety net in a smarter way — about how folks both at the bot­tom and in the middle class want to see gov­ern­ment re­act­ing to people who need help. How do we use re­sources we already have bet­ter rather than adding more and more safety nets?” said Lan­ae Er­ick­son Hatal­sky, the re­port’s coau­thor and the dir­ect­or of Third Way’s So­cial Policy and Polit­ics pro­gram.

While Demo­crats have al­ways held polit­ic­al ad­vant­ages on is­sues fa­cing the poor, the sub­ject of eco­nom­ic mo­bil­ity has re­cently be­come a lead­ing cause celebre among Re­pub­lic­ans. Paul Ry­an un­veiled a blue­print for tack­ling poverty while vis­it­ing in­ner-city churches for guid­ance; Rand Paul has en­gaged in ag­gress­ive out­reach to Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans, op­pos­ing man­dat­ory drug sen­tences for non­vi­ol­ent of­fend­ers; and Marco Ru­bio offered his own anti-poverty plan, ac­know­ledging that mo­bil­ity in this coun­try has slowed. Giv­en all that at­ten­tion, the Third Way re­port could of­fer Demo­crats a rare op­por­tun­ity to work with the op­pos­i­tion. In­deed, Pres­id­ent Obama said the “most im­port­ant is­sue he ever worked on” at the White House was “My Broth­er’s Keep­er” — an ini­ti­at­ive that of­fers in­tern­ships, ment­or­ing, and early-child­hood edu­ca­tion to Afric­an-Amer­ic­an chil­dren without fath­ers in their lives.

But in ad­dress­ing is­sues that di­vide the Demo­crat­ic Party, such as abandon­ing race pref­er­ences in fa­vor of eco­nom­ic ones and ac­know­ledging that pro­gress can be made without throw­ing ad­di­tion­al fed­er­al money at prob­lems, the re­port may well hit res­ist­ance from the very audi­ence it’s geared to­ward. Out­side Obama’s very per­son­al pitch, it’s hard to find many Demo­crats ad­dress­ing the cul­tur­al end of the poverty equa­tion. When Ry­an awk­wardly said, “We have got this tailspin of cul­ture in our in­ner cit­ies,” in a ra­dio in­ter­view with Bill Ben­nett, he was at­tacked by the left for be­ing a big­ot. (Just look at the heated de­bate between the At­lantic‘s Ta-Ne­hisi Coates and New York Magazine‘s Jonath­an Chait over wheth­er cul­tur­al forces play a role in Afric­an-Amer­ic­an poverty for a peek at the Demo­crat­ic split.)

Polit­ic­ally speak­ing, it’s much easi­er for Demo­crat­ic of­fi­cials to ex­ploit griev­ances to rally the base than to pro­mote the solu­tions that could ali­en­ate some of their core con­stitu­en­cies. At its heart, the Third Way re­port could have been writ­ten by Obama, with some Clin­to­nian polit­ic­al sens­ib­il­it­ies sprinkled in. But it’s dif­fi­cult to find Demo­crat­ic mem­bers of Con­gress fo­cused on mo­bil­ity, which has be­come the GOP’s pre­ferred nar­rat­ive, in­stead of in­come in­equal­ity.

One can­did­ate who could raise the mo­bil­ity mantle for Demo­crats is Hil­lary Clin­ton her­self. She spent the last week fight­ing off cri­ti­cisms that she’s out of touch with av­er­age voters and too polit­ic­ally cau­tious. With her re­cord as sec­ret­ary of State un­der in­creased scru­tiny, she could use fresh do­mest­ic policy ideas to talk about after her book tour. The Third Way re­port would be a start, at least to be­gin an im­port­ant na­tion­al con­ver­sa­tion.

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