Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman

Silly vs. Noble Bipartisanship: the Gerson-Wallis Example

If you spend too much time reading political blogs, you’d come to think that the word “bipartisanship” is has the same Q ratings as “pedophilia” or “octuplets.” In fact, the one thing that activists of left and right agree on is that bi-partisanship is the province of the weak and amoral.
Very often bipartisanship is cast as — and occasionally actually is — the melding of two disparate-but-coherent positions into one unified-but-incoherent view. Politically, activists hate it because it means sacrificing a principle and potentially a weopon to clobber the enemy.
But spend enough time in the policy world and you come to realize that some sensible policy positions are not inherently ideological; they become ideological by dint of who proposed it first and who (therefore) opposed it first. They’re not born ideological by nature; they become ideological through nurture. For instance, national service, involves solving problems through “service to nation” rather than handouts to the poor — a seemingly conservative idea (and indeed william F. Buckley was a big champion). But because Kennedy and Clinton proposed it first, it became “conservative” to oppose it.
If you can strip away the political barnacles to reveal the pure idea beneath, you’ve served a real public purpose. That is good bipartisanship.
I think we may have just seen an example of this in a new group formed by Michael J. Gerson, President George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter, and Jim Wallis, the progressive evangelical leader. They pulled together a collection of seriously divergent policymakers — many motivated by the Biblical injunction to help the poor — locked them in rooms and told them not to come out until they’d agreed on something.
What came out is a set of actual policy proposals and a strange-bedfellows group — The Poverty Forum — to reduce poverty.
For instance, liberal evangelical Ron Sider, and Chuck Donovan, Executive Vice President, Family Research Council, agreed that poverty could be helped by child tax credits AND raising the minimum wage. Even with the caveat that Donovan was speaking as a mere individual and not head of FRC, that’s quite a statement.
Most of these ideas are shrewd, albeit stunningly wonky. (“Establish a Lead National Organization (LNO) to Provide Technical Assistance to CESIG”)
I’m particularly fond of the government giving every person at birth $500 to create IRA-type savings accounts, that could be built over years and used for education or home purchases after the person is 18.
If you’re well-caffeinated, read them all here. If you’d like to sign a petition endorsing the general approach, go here. But in the meantime, a congratulations to this crew of fearless faith-based foes who spent the time stomaching each other for the public good.

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posted February 19, 2009 at 1:42 am

My great admiration to Gerson and Wallis for initiating this opportunity for dialogue and bipartisan solutions. It would be outstanding if legislators would begin by passing a law allowing any new parent to choose guaranteed childcare over guaranteed housing and food subsidies. Think about it – the majority of new, low-income parents have somewhere to stay and a source of food, but in order to invest time in learning the skills they need to become more self-sufficient, they need secure childcare. Ideally, this childcare would be provided by background-checked adults trained in early childhood education. These adults could also be part-time workers enrolled in college courses to become teachers, counselors, etc. Having worked at several nonprofits, I have seen firsthand the stress of parents who have lost jobs, then are in job search, then lose their childcare credit because they are unemployed. Then, they lose their slot at the childcare facility and must find alternative childcare, sometimes provided by an adult unskilled in child supervision, with dangerous results. How is this fair to the child? Poverty itself is instable enough without unpredictable supervision in unfamiliar places.
Studies have shown that the best predictor of a child’s academic success is the literacy level of his or her mother. When low-income children, who have never attended preschool, begin kindergarten, their vocabulary levels are far below those of other children in higher-income homes who have had the benefit of high-quality preschool experiences. How many habits are begun before age 5? And how much might a low-income parent accomplish, educationally and professionally, with five years guaranteed high-quality childcare? And what parent, loving their child, would not sacrifice their own material comfort to ensure their child is well-cared for? For an example, though, of abuse of this benefit, check out Check out the Times UK article February 14, Obama Warned Over Welfare Spendathon
“In Wisconsin, the state that forged a pioneering path in welfare reforms in the 1990s, residents were astonished by a newspaper investigation that disclosed that a $340m (£236m) programme offering taxpayer-financed child care to low-income working parents was riddled with fraud and expensive loopholes.
In one case, a family of four sisters who had 17 children between them put all of them together, took it in turns to babysit them and over the past three years claimed $540,000 (£374,000) in perfectly legal state childcare subsidies.”
Policies would need to be created to prevent abuse of this benefit.
Also, government could help nonprofits tremendously by creating one website listing all nonprofits that is easily searchable by terms such as population served, geographical area served, etc. This database would benefit not only nonprofits seeking to connect with donors, those in need of the services could quickly scan for them and find resources that could assist them. With greater attention, and funding, for the United Way 211 resource line, our country is making strides toward better communication of resources to those in need of them.
In addition, the above proposed site would allow people in need of services to sign up to receive free emails, or mailed newsletters, at least monthly, detailing services available in their area. Of special focus would be nonprofits offering free skills instruction. With this type of service, those in need could see the options available to them and choose accordingly.
With many years’ work serving the working poor, it is clear that so many are unaware of the resources available to them. Ensuring that elementary age children are introduced to educational websites that allow them to further their own studies in fields that interest them will help them become better adept at earlier ages to navigate opportunities for professional development.
If at all possible, it would be tremendous to encourage interfaith religious groups throughout the country to read and reflect upon Bringing in the Sheaves, Transforming Poverty into Productivity, by George Grant. It could reinvigorate charitable giving and spur donors to give of their time as well of treasure to help alleviate the disintegration of the family, and personal dignity and responsibility, that we witness in our time.

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