Paul Krugman and David Brooks paid conspicuous attention to the problem of poverty in the New York Times last Friday. Krugman pointed to a seismic shift in the approach of Democrats. After years of silence on the issue or apologizing for their efforts, he argues that the Democrats are trumpeting their efforts on behalf of the poor whether it be the extension of unemployment benefits, preserving the food stamps program, Medicaid, or the earned income tax credit. Krugman contents that the Republican line on poverty – that the poor are to blame for their condition – is no longer politically tenable and that the attempt to dismiss concerns about income inequality as class warfare is no longer a conversation stopper. Along the way, he contends that federal programs to help the poor have substantial achievements to their credit and that the persistence of poverty lies with changing labor markets (particularly wage stagnation), not with the poor.
Meanwhile, David Brooks writes under the headline, “Movement on the Right.” He points to the essays appearing in National Journal, a conservative policy journal. Brooks styles its approach as the conservatism of skeptical reform, rather than a conservatism of the government is the problem. Among the suggested reforms are wages subsidies, cash bonuses for people who get off unemployment insurance and find jobs, relocation subsidies to help the unemployed move to areas with better jobs, and a carefully structured income support grant to replace the “morass of existing welfare programs for the poor.”
My reaction to Krugman’s excellent column is to wish that the Democrats were as forthright as he suggests. At one point, he says that if the programs pressed by the Democrats “enroll a growing number of Americans, rather than being narrowly targeted on the poor, so what.” I suspect that the political point for the Democrats is that the programs are politically popular precisely for that reason and that they cling to the view that it is important to maintain a political distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor. At least, they are not prepared to fight that distinction.
My reaction to Brooks is that the National Journal does not a movement make (in fairness, he probably did not write that headline) and the views of the National Journal are far removed from the mainstream of Republican thought (though the Republicans would be a more responsible opposition if they were controlled by the National Journal).
In the end, however, I think Krugman is on to something when he suggests there has been a shift in the Democratic Party and that Brooks is right to sense that the Republicans cannot cling to their do-nothing policies. The shift comes not just from economic realities making it clear that the Republican rhetoric is bankrupt. Credit must also go to the Occupy Movement and Pope Francis.