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Op-Ed: Progressives and conservatives can agree on poverty solutions

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Talking about poverty has historically stirred partisan tension and circular ideological debates. With more finger wagging than handshaking, leaders in neither America as a whole nor the city of Chicago have improved the livelihoods of those in poverty.

Progressive extremists have flocked to solutions for helping the poor such as the Fight for $15 minimum wage hike and welfare expansions. But throwing more money at state or federal agencies hasn’t solved the problem. It has, in many cases, worsened things by creating a cycle of dependency.

Conservative extremists have pointed to solutions such as cuts to taxation and government welfare programs, while telling people to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” These neglect many of the realities of poverty and doom people to fail an impossible-to-execute sentiment.

Changing the conversation and bringing city leaders together to focus on solutions is how we empower residents to rise out of poverty, once and for all. The good news is there are policy solutions for fighting poverty that progressives and conservatives already agree on.

The first principles focus on getting people a job. Think tanks and public policy advocates from both left-of-center and right-of-center ideologies, including the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution, agree we need policy reforms that reaffirm the centrality of work, including requiring work for able-bodied recipients of government benefits. The U.S. labor force participation rate of 62.7% is 4.6 percentage points lower than a generation ago. People are opting out of work when it’s the single largest factor determining someone’s poverty status. So, let’s bring them back to the workforce.

Possible solutions include eliminating or reducing barriers to work, such as occupational licenses. Research from the Brookings Institution shows 30% of the U.S. workforce today requires some form of occupational licensing, up from 5% in the 1950s. These are expensive or time-intensive obstacles to finding a good job or promotion.

There are also opportunities to better prepare individuals to adapt to changing technology. City leaders could focus on developing new apprenticeship programs or investing in secondary- or higher-education programs. Better workforce development initiatives and expanded school choice can ensure individuals are prepared for the jobs of tomorrow, while also meeting the needs of employers today. We need to focus more on student skill building and less on degree acquisition to prevent the next generation from falling into poverty.

Another agreed-upon path out of poverty involves ensuring welfare is success-oriented and as effective and efficient as possible. That starts with rigorous data collection to evaluate whether specific welfare programs work. Then we can restructure safety net programs to smooth “benefits cliffs” that leave those in poverty with lose-lose choices regarding welfare benefits that keep their families safe and career advancement that can end their poverty.

The University of Chicago’s Inclusive Economy Lab and the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta found once a household income reaches $54,900, a family would suffer a net financial loss of $25,481. To prevent such a stark drop, the progressive Urban Institute recommends a shallower loss of benefits or a grace period. Similarly, the conservative Alliance for Opportunity recommends streamlining federal programs and processes, such as the more than 40 agencies that help with job placement and training.

Other poverty solutions include zoning reform and family stability. Chicago could look to Minneapolis as an example for easing zoning restrictions over multifamily units to create more affordable housing. The city could better promote the “success sequence” that shows individuals who gained a high school diploma, found a job and got married before having kids had a poverty rate of only 2%, according to Brookings Institution research.

The time has come to rewrite the narrative of poverty in America. We must be bold enough to admit the old ways haven’t worked and courageous enough to embrace new strategies. By empowering individuals, rather than encouraging dependency, we can transform the War on Poverty into a victory for dignity and prosperity.

This is not just an economic imperative; it is a moral one. We have agreement, so let’s foster the will.

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