The run-up to the passage of the American Rescue Plan (ARP) last week showcased the leftward drift of American social policy among conservatives.
Democrats’ attempt to raise the minimum wage via the ARP was nixed by the Senate parliamentarian, but not before Sens. Tom Cotton and Mitt Romney and Sen. Josh Hawley proposed two Republican-friendly alternative minimum-wage hikes. And as the Democrats’ yearslong efforts to enact a child allowance gained traction as an ARP provision, it was met with Romney’s own child allowance proposal, “The Family Security Act,” which generated considerable second-order debates among conservatives, some of whom argued the allowance should enable parents to stay home from work.
These policy debates echo G.K. Chesterton’s century-old observation, “The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected.” A consensus has emerged among Washington policymakers, first on the left and now on the right, that working-class—and perhaps even middle-class—Americans need more financial buffers against the headwinds of globalization and large-scale capitalism. In what political scientists call “policy framing,” policymakers on the right and left have cast the boundaries of debate within the twin premises that working families are beset with stagnating incomes and the federal government should subsidize the difference between those incomes and whatever a living wage requires.
Within this policy frame, conservatives have embraced two typically progressive goals: the prioritization of security over opportunity (hence the name of Romney’s child allowance) and the elimination of mediating structures.
On the first point, right-leaning economic populists have argued the past few years for subsidies for wages, domestic firms, and child-rearing as protections against the failures of free markets. Upward mobility is rather absent from their proposals, as they seem to have surrendered to the view that people without the right degrees or training must settle for subpar hourly wage jobs.
On the second point, today’s economic populists do not share the concerns of conservative welfare reformers of the 1990s, who worried that cash payments were prone to misuse by recipients and to abuse by a federal government with too much power over individual recipients. Conservative welfare reformers in the 1990s replaced cash payments with block grants to states to remove perverse incentives and to allow states and localities to work more directly with recipients on a plan for improving their vocational prospects. They consolidated childcare funding into a new program to help working mothers and increased child support from absent fathers. Work increased, child poverty dropped, and stagnation gave way to upward mobility.
Working families need more help, but why have we framed our current policy choices so narrowly? Numerous studies show, unsurprisingly, that wages for working-class people rise when they earn certifications and training for good jobs. Surveys also show that working families are actually more bullish about the economy and the American Dream than the political class recognizes. Working-class people have aspirations, but the political class sees only the anxiety and despair it needs for its own political objectives.
What if we had spent more time the past five years prioritizing investments in people’s vocational prospects over income security? How would our policy frame look now?
A large-scale, national effort to transform our workforce training and certification systems would arguably do more to boost both working-class prospects than the government subsidy proposals we have been debating.
For instance, instead of child allowances to families that don’t need them, we could retool our current workforce system to supply every American who wants a better job with the information about the jobs with the best growth potential where they live and a subsidy to prepare for those jobs. The federal government could provide states with flexible funds to offset costs associated with training, such as moving, transportation, and childcare—everyday barriers that frequently prevent people from completing their training. Policymakers could make more benefits portable, such as health insurance, so that people could pursue opportunity without worrying about losing their benefits. Finally, Washington could condition federal aid from agencies, such as HUD and the Department of Transportation, on whether states and localities are keeping housing costs affordable by encouraging more housing supply, which benefits lower-income people the most.
The biggest problem facing working-class Americans is the degree to which they are cut off from opportunity. Supplying them with more money to help with the cost of living is noble at one level but incredibly shortsighted at a more important level—a level I suspect working-class Americans wish policymakers cared about.
The challenge for today’s conservative policymakers is not to make progressive policies sound more conservative. It is to prove Chesterton wrong by going in a better direction—one that working people also want.
Ryan Streeter is the Director of Domestic Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.