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    Wednesday, February 22, 2006

    E.J. Dionne on Democrats and Wealth

    Read the whole thing here.

    Some bits and pieces:

    Sims is a bluff, warm man who gets excited about problem-solving. A Democrat, he will talk your ear off about the King County government's effort to work with local employers in creating a new heath care delivery system. The idea is that government can be a catalyst for negotiation, research and reform and save both public and private employers money while producing better health outcomes for consumers.

    It fits with Sims's larger idea that government, far from being a drain on the nation's wealth, ought to "provide the social infrastructure and the physical infrastructure to help wealth be created." He said during lunch here the other day that Democrats should run under the slogan: "Rebuild America."

    Sims notes that after World War II, the federal government helped unleash an era of exceptional growth through investments in schools, interstate highways and higher education. Both India and China are "making intelligent moves for economic growth" and the United States cannot stand by and watch. "You need people and brains to create an economy," he says. "You need transportation to move an economy. And you need an environmental policy to create clean air and clean water."


    Just a reminder that the economy does not run on multi-billion dollar mergers and multi-trillion dollar wars alone.

    Sims's idea reminds Democrats that a commitment to active government is not simply about redistributing wealth. It is also rooted in the historically sound insight that effective government has always been essential to robust economic growth. Government, in the Sims formulation, should be a dynamic player in our nation's economic life.

    Yet Democrats face a paradoxical problem: They find themselves attacked for being too concerned about redistributing money, yet they are far too timid in committing themselves to lifting up the very poorest Americans.


    Why is it so hard to explain that, by lifting the poorest Americans out of poverty, people in every economic bracket will experience a surge? I don't think it takes a high school diploma to understand that- I think it takes a nice, simple explanation. And some Democrat, I don't care which one, but some Democrat needs to teach their constituents.

    That's where the Urban Institute study, "Reconnecting Disadvantaged Young Men," co-authored by Offner with my Georgetown University colleagues Peter Edelman and Harry J. Holzer, comes in. They write: "Nearly 3 million less-educated young people between the ages of 16 and 24 -- about half of whom are young men -- are disconnected from education and employment in the United States." This disconnected cohort includes significant numbers of Hispanics and whites, but African Americans are disproportionately represented in their ranks. While policymakers have spent much energy on the problems facing single mothers, they have done little about the disadvantages facing young men.

    The decline of manufacturing employment means the economy is producing fewer well-paying jobs for the less-skilled. These disconnected young men tend to go to the poorest schools, grow up amid concentrated poverty and in families that often lack fathers, and face persistent employment discrimination. Face it: The one expensive social program we have for this group is incarceration. Can't we do better?


    The connection between poverty and crime is so briskly made in pop culture, but there seems to be a taboo about it for politicians discussing broader economic policies. I think part of this is the idea that the "choice" to commit a crime is a "moral" one, which justifies the way we prosecute criminals. We have to believe there's something wrong with the person that separates them from the law-abiding. And it can't be "access" because that has an obvious solution. The middle-class public has to believe that, being born into or falling into the same circumstances, they wouldn't be led into a life of crime. It's not about circumstances, it's about something inherent. And that's biologically-coded and race is still biologically-coded, so racism plays a big part in categorizing some folks as "criminal" and others as not. (Gender as well.)

    The authors of the report offer resolutely hardheaded solutions. They would reform education and training programs and work with employers and other intermediaries to connect these young men to the labor market. They would expand programs such as the Job Corps that have "proven track records," and have us do far more to integrate ex-offenders into the world of work. They would create much stronger work incentives through income supplements, higher minimum wages and changes in the child support system.

    The Urban Institute authors can be read as bringing Sims's practical focus on government's role in wealth creation to the task of expanding opportunities for the least fortunate among the young. This is good public policy. My hunch is that it could also be good politics.

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