For all his talk of "compassionate conservatism," President Bush has done remarkably little to empower America's poor. What a contrast with his predecessor, Bill Clinton, who radically reformed welfare, moved millions of people off the dole and into jobs, and made a serious dent in poverty.
The Bush administration's inaction leaves it to America's next president to pick up where Mr. Clinton left off. But while Mr. Clinton's reforms encouraged welfare recipients - mostly single mothers with children - to work, it's time to focus on the other side of the poverty equation: the men who father their children.
When it comes to work, low-income men and women are headed in opposite directions. In the late 1990s, the number of single mothers who were working surged from 53 percent to 68 percent for those with very young children, and from 67 percent to 83 percent for those with older children. But today, only about half of all poor men work, and just 16 percent work full time. A mere 6 percent of poor black men work full time.
The absence of responsible, breadwinning fathers in low-income neighborhoods is a social calamity. It undermines marriage, deprives children of positive male role models, and leaves single moms strapped for cash.
That's why getting more men into full-time work is critical to tackling the economic and cultural dimensions of poverty in America.
But if we are serious about putting work first, we can't ignore the reality that many entry-level jobs pay too little to provide what most Americans would consider a minimally decent standard of living.
To correct this problem, liberals traditionally have called for raising the minimum wage. But there's a better tool for encouraging and rewarding work: the earned income tax credit (EITC), a federal program that rebates cash directly to low-income adults who hold a job. Since Mr. Clinton expanded the EITC, more than 4 million families have lifted themselves out of poverty. In fact, outside of Social Security, the tax credit has become the nation's most effective anti-poverty program.
But low-income men don't get much help from the EITC because many aren't raising kids. For example, a single working mom with two or more children can get up to $4,536 annually in EITC rebates, while childless adults get a paltry $412. The point is not to close the gap, but to beef up the EITC's work bonus to make entry-level jobs more attractive to men. That's crucial, because when absent dads aren't working, they probably aren't making their child-support payments.
What's more, the EITC unwittingly slaps an economic penalty on marriage. When a working mom marries a man who also has some income, their combined earnings may push them beyond the qualifying range for EITC benefits.
So how do we make work pay for men?
First, we should boost EITC benefits for noncustodial dads, so long as they work full time and meet their child-support obligations. As Mr. Clinton understood, cutting poverty requires both expanding opportunity for disadvantaged Americans and demanding more personal responsibility from them.
Second, we should simplify the maze of tax credits for which low-income families and individuals are eligible. Specifically, we would fold the EITC, the child credit, and the child and dependent care credit into a single "family tax credit." Those qualifying would receive one dollar in a refundable credit for every two dollars earned, with a maximum credit of $3,500 for a family with one child, $5,200 for two children, and $7,000 for three children.
The family tax credit also would provide 4 million noncustodial fathers and childless workers a work bonus of $1,236 - nearly three times what they currently receive in EITC benefits. And it would soften the marriage penalty by raising the qualifying income thresholds for two-earner couples.
By marrying tax reform and new work incentives for men, policymakers can build on President Clinton's most enduring social legacies: reducing welfare dependence and making work pay.
Tragically, the Bush administration has barely lifted a finger to aid poor Americans. Let's hope our next president doesn't waste the opportunity to help more Americans lift themselves from poverty.
Katie McMinn Campbell is a social policy analyst at the Progressive Policy Institute. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. Will Marshall is president of the Progressive Policy Institute. His e-mail is email@example.com.
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