David Brooks' Sept. 8 New York Times column hailed the arrival of National Affairs, a new quarterly magazine that seeks to occupy the same area of the public square vacated by The Public Interest (which closed in 2005): "the bloody crossroads where social science and public policy meet matters of morality, culture and virtue." Available online, the debut fall issue features "Getting Ahead in America," an article that uses 6,000 words and a few charts and graphs to contrast economic equality (the stated goal of some government programs) and economic mobility (a condition author Ron Haskins says is encouraged by "strong families, more education, and full-time work").
The article begins with a challenge to readers and a pot shot at journalists:
America's familiar debate over income inequality conceals and confuses at least as much as it reveals. To hear most journalists and activists tell the story, our country is the scene of a rampant and long-running economic travesty, as the rich grow richer, the poor grow poorer, and the distance between them belies the promise of America even in times of prosperity.
Question: Is it too much to ask that authors of such generalizations take some responsibility for explaining or documenting their claims?
OK. I feel better now.
Haskins assembles an army of facts to show that American public policy may be tackling the wrong problem, and that inequality may not be as bad as all those journalists and activists suggest:
This does not mean that inequality has not been growing, or is unimportant. But it does suggest that our approach to the plight of the poor ought not to be rooted in the familiar story of inequality -- as that story is not entirely accurate, and is not the most important facet of poverty and opportunity in America.
Then he drops a potential shocker:
Compared to other countries, for instance, mobility in America is surprisingly low. ...The American belief that opportunity is greatest in the United States is out of line with the facts.
The article concludes that most government programs designed to aid the poor "produce modest, if any, lasting impacts on participants."
What, then, should policy makers do?
The best way to increase opportunity is to encourage strong families, more education, and full-time work. ...Society -- from parents and teachers to celebrities and political figures -- should send a clear and consistent message of personal responsibility to children. They should herald the "success sequence": finish schooling, get a job, get married, have babies.
Haskins concludes with numerous practical suggestions for encouraging economic mobility.
All of which reminds me of the regular either-or debates that raged at the international charity where I formerly worked. Should we focus on relief or development? Should we clothe and feed those who are victims of famines and floods today, or should we concentrate on educating members of the next generation so they will become leaders of tomorrow?
Ultimately, our organization decided it would have greater impact if it focused its energies on one of these strategies. At the same time we were thankful that other organizations were tackling the problems we couldn't.
Should the U.S. government do more to encourage economic mobility? Sure. But should it do so by diverting funds from programs serving those Jesus called "the least of these"? That's a question that will challenge lawmakers (along with all those pesky journalists and activists).