Spotlight Exclusives

Poverty Debates After the Midterms: Five Lessons Going Forward, By Tom Freedman and John Bridgeland

Posted on

This Thanksgiving, advocates for more help to the poor and low-income Americans will be eating turkey, but they also may be thinking about the recent midterm elections and the need to evaluate their strategies for the year ahead. As former policy staffers in the White House one for a Democratic President, the other a Republican one we agree that recent events suggest at least five lessons for those on either side of the aisle interested in effective poverty fighting.


We present them for your holiday contemplation:


1) The Economy


It۪s a no-brainer that the elections showed voters care about the economy. Election night exit polls confirm what everyone suspectedthe electorate is predominately concerned with economic conditions, with 86 percent of voters noting that they were worried and 62 percent claiming the economy was the most important issue in 2010. More than half of voters, 61 percent, think the nation is heading in the wrong direction. Whatever else, this data shows advocates must describe their positions in the context of our current economic troubles. Data supports what common sense would dictate: people worry about their own situations but such economic woes also generate a better understanding of the struggles of the poor.


2) Concern for Low-Income Issues


It would therefore be a mistake to assume voters don۪t care about the poor. Polls conducted throughout 2010 represent some reassuring data. Almost two-thirds of voters, 64 percent, are willing to support government intervention targeting poverty. The concern shows up in various areas. For instance, a surprising 75 percent cite the country۪s treatment of poverty and homelessness as a reason for dissatisfaction with the American status quo, in which 56 percent feel that the poor get less attention from the federal government than they deserve. The question, of course, is whether they think current initiatives are working as successfully as they need to be.


3) Need for Reform


There is some skepticism about the current federal approaches to address the pressing aspects of poverty. Some research shows that many Americans, more than half, don۪t believe government action has substantially helped the poor. And over one third of the public thinks government benefits encourage poor people to remain poor. A portion of Americans will, of course, never support programmatic efforts. But many voters need reassurance that the programs are helping and also being improved. One possible mantra may be common sense reform and smart investment.


4) Spending vs. Deficit Reduction


Advocates need to be prepared for the spending versus deficit debate. In the coming months, the policy debate will focus on this central tension. The citizenry is not uniform in this debate, but it can۪t be denied that the current energy flows toward both deficit reductions and tax cuts. Supporters of the parts of the federal budget for economic security programs will start on the defensive, especially given the two debt reduction commissions that have recommended dramatic action to cut spending, rein in entitlements and eliminate many tax expenditures. Punditry tends to treat these issues simplistically. Advocates need to navigate these waters armed with evidence, new ideas, and determination to fight when necessary. And all should agree that deficit reduction should not be achieved on the backs of the poor.


5) Multiple Approaches & Innovation


Some programmatic experts tend to see the federal government and more local jurisdictions, to a lesser extent, as the be-all and end-all of anti-poverty action. But voters often see action against poverty as requiring a combination of approaches. Take anti-hunger efforts as an example. Research shows that voters think a variety of tools can be effectivefederal, state, or local efforts, but also non profits, religious, and private sector initiatives as well. We believe advocates may find a useful tool to be innovation. Innovation challenges advocates and policymakers to break out of old ruts, see the chance for new partnerships and efforts, and find effective approaches that don۪t carry excessively heavy political baggage. A majority of Americans believe it is a big problem in our society that there is not equal opportunity. Helping the poor is a matter of bringing them into an opportunity society and helping them remain there.


Some of these lessons may seem apparent, others may be inconsistent with current efforts or inconvenient to adopt. But we encourage advocates to take the next weeks to think deeply about the new debates and how to win them. While voters care about poverty, they often have other concerns and winning arguments in this new context will require learning lessons.


No doubt the years ahead pose serious problemsthe challenges are real and the resources are limited. What is certain is that with current economic conditions, the environment has changed. Advocates need to be geared up and ready to fight, open to compromise, and eager to innovate.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.


Tom Freedman was Senior Advisor to President Clinton and is president of Freedman Consulting, LLC, a strategic consulting firm.


John Bridgeland was Director of the Domestic Policy Council for President George W. Bush and is CEO of Civic Enterprises, a public policy development firm.


Freedman and Bridgeland help manage the Exclusive Commentary section of the Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity website.

« Back to Spotlight Exclusives