A Bipartisan Debate about Expanding Economic Opportunity

January 2016

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By Rob Thompson, Senior Policy and Communications Advisor


Children’s futures are limited, or enhanced, by the economic circumstances in which they grow up. Reams of research have established clear links between growing up poor and low graduation rates, negative health outcomes, and limited economic opportunity as adults.

In North Carolina and across the country, far too many children are growing up in poverty without ample opportunity to fulfill their potential.

The good news, at least nationally, is that an important conversation has begun. Over the past two years, national Republicans have started talking seriously about poverty and are arguing with Democrats about the best strategies to address it. To be sure, the debate gets stuck in partisan politics and there are plenty of questionable ideas being floated, but the fact that poverty is now an issue both parties deem important enough to argue about is a sign of progress.

In January, House Speaker Paul Ryan, the Republican catalyst of this new debate, and Republican Senator Tim Scott hosted the “Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity” in Columbia, South Carolina where Republican presidential candidates shared their views on the topic.

Governor Chris Christie spoke up in favor of expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a policy that provides low-income workers with a refundable tax credit, and touted his success increasing the EITC in New Jersey. Nationally, the EITC has broad support among leaders in both parties (President Obama and Speaker Ryan) and prominent economists.

Governor Huckabee and others spoke about the need to reform our criminal justice system and focus on treatment and rehabilitation, particularly for those suffering from addiction. This is another area where there is substantial bipartisan agreement.

Not all the ideas were good. Ben Carson promulgated the poverty-inducing policy of a flat tax. In response to the forum, Democratic Congressman Jim Clyburn penned a scathing blog outlining the various ways many Republican-backed policies, specifically Speaker Ryan’s proposed budget, would have an adverse impact on low-income people trying to rise out of poverty. Despite the shortfalls and misfires on policy solutions, it’s heartening to see poverty addressed as a serious issue.

Unfortunately, the debate that’s happening at the national level is not happening here in North Carolina. There’s plenty of rhetoric about jobs and education being tossed around, but neither party’s leading candidates are proposing serious policy solutions for addressing poverty. This is a shame, as there are plenty of ideas that have merit and can be embraced across the aisle.

For example, legislators allowed the state EITC to sunset in 2014, despite ample evidence of its effectiveness and bipartisan support. The legislature should reinstate the EITC without delay.

Another example of a bipartisan strategy for expanding economic opportunity is Children’s Savings Accounts. There are variations of this policy, but the basic idea is to provide low-income children with a small but meaningful savings account that is earmarked for their future education. Recent research shows that low-income children with as little as $1-499 in college savings are three times more likely to attend college and four times more likely to graduate than those without any savings at all.

The list of bipartisan ideas could go on—expanding early education opportunities and reforming our criminal justice system are other ideas that enjoy bipartisan support in North Carolina and nationally.

For any of these ideas to become a reality, elected officials and candidates for office need to start talking about them. An election year is an opportunity for candidates to outline their priorities for North Carolina. Surely, the future of our children must be one of those priorities. We won’t all agree on every candidate’s ideas, but if we start the conversation, then we might be able to find some things we can agree on to build our state and our children’s future.