ON-Lion Letter

"Despite the absence of cooperation and consensus in Washington, widespread agreement has emerged that federal policy should focus on expanding opportunity," begins a contribution by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research's Scott Winship to a June publication with two papers about how to improve economic opportunity and mobility in America.  "The goal calls for an agenda to increase economic growth rates in order to move everyone up.  But even with a rising tide that lifts all boats, policies to expand opportunity must help more low-income children transcend their origins and make it into the middle class.  The agenda outlined here is addressed to this second task:  increasing the upward mobility of poor children."

Winship is the Walter B. Wriston Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, which is substantially supported by The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee.  The other contribution was by Jared Bernstein and Ben Spielberg of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

"'Opportunity' means that one's birth circumstances do not impede the pursuit of one's American dream," Winship continues in his piece.  "Today, children raised in poverty have only a 40 percent chance of making it into the middle class as adults.  Moving more poor children up is a moral imperative for the nation.  But it is not obvious how to do that, and past approaches have failed.

"Some proposals offered today are likely to prove equally unsuccessful because they misdiagnose the problem of immobility as stemming from rising income inequality and because they presume that what we have tried before will work if we just fund it more generously," according to Winship.  "A successful program for improving opportunity will take seriously how little we know about how to achieve that goal.  It will recognize that different actors in efforts to help the poor have particular strengths that are suitable for specific roles.  Increasing upward mobility will require acknowledging that simple financial incentives are often more effective than planned social programs, and that ill-designed safety-net programs can do as much or more to impede mobility as they do to promote it."

Among other things, Winship suggests creating an office in the White House to fund and evaluate hundreds of local mobility experiments and a commission to make budgeting recommendations to Congress that would help discover and promote successful local approaches to expand opportunity and to dismantle ineffective federal programs that waste taxpayer dollars.  He also suggests sending a dozen safety-net programs to the states to promote experimentation and localization while requiring work and time limits for most -- but not all -- beneficiaries.

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