This week’s Courier Herald column:
If you want the right answers, it’s best to make sure you
have asked the right questions.
Presidential primaries have a tendency to set the tone on
policy debates, as much as we have debates on actual policy anymore. It is through this lens we have accepted as a
current policy debate the subject of ending “income inequality” with leading
candidates lining up with initiatives that would transfer trillions in wealth
via higher taxes and new entitlement programs.
Rather than criticizing the proposed solutions, let’s start
with a basic premise. If the goal is to
lift up those who have the least, then we can have the basis for a proper
public policy debate. For the sake of
this column we’ll sidestep much of the rhetoric that appears more interested in
punishing those with wealth or trying to determine when someone has “enough”.
For possibilities that fit within the realm of actual
political solutions, let’s also eliminate the purists’ extreme positions that
the government should provide nothing or everything. Tens of billions of state and local tax
dollars annually to public education and billions more for Medicaid say that
the electorate has established a vested interest in government addressing these
problems, before even addressing more comprehensive federally funded welfare
programs. The state constitution’s
limits on property and income taxes also signal that there are limits to what
the government can pay for.
Asking how and when the government should be involved is a
respectable place to start. For the
question of how to address income inequality, some metrics of success should –
and could – be agreed upon.
Rather than starting with brand new programs, we can and
should look at the programs we currently have and assess what is working and
what is not. We can’t deny that we’ve
spent trillions on programs designed to alleviate poverty while the biggest
champions of those programs declare the problems are getting worse.
Let’s start with a presumption and work outward. Means testing – the process of setting income
limits of those who can receive benefits – is trapping too many Georgians in
poverty because the cost in earning incremental income above program limits is
significantly less than their cost of replacing the benefits they
Dr. Alexander Ruder of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta
testified on this “benefits cliff” during recent state budget hearings. Speaking on workforce development, he noted
that we are having difficulty moving entry level employees up a career ladder
because many can’t afford to take a pay raise.
He has agreement from “both sides” that this is an actual problem. Both the right leaning Georgia Center for Opportunity and the left leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute have written extensively on benefits cliffs.
Georgia became a national leader on criminal justice reform
because the right and the left were willing to put down their partisan talking
points and address some fundamental and basic problems that were incarcerating
non-violent citizens and permanently inhibiting their contributions to society
well after their public debt had been paid.
The same potential for bipartisan cooperation exists at the
state level by addressing the known problem of benefits cliffs, starting with
Georgia’s Medicaid program. Georgia is
currently in the process of designing a waiver in conjunction with expanding
the Medicaid program.
Bipartisanship will mean that some Republicans will need to
accept that with 36 states plus DC having expanded Medicaid, it’s an
entitlement program that won’t be cancelled.
Meanwhile, Democrats would serve the state well to drop the insistence that
Medicaid expansion be exactly on the terms it was signed into law a decade ago.
There is a solution here that can please the majorities of
both parties. To get there, we need
fewer shouting matches over bumper sticker slogans. Instead, we need more discussion about how to
make the dollars we are currently spending work to lift Georgians to higher