“Advocating for children and families has been the cause of my life,” wrote Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in a New York Times op-ed this week. It often seems more like becoming president has been the cause of her life, but no matter. Less than two months from Election Day, Clinton is facing an opponent more likely to embrace her most liberal policy prescriptions than he is to challenge them. The Times graciously offered her space on its opinion page to share my plan for helping America’s poor. If ever a chance existed to advocate for children and families and increase her chances of becoming president, this should be it.
Instead, she serves a hodgepodge of leftovers. The lead item in her anti-poverty plan is actually her economic-growth plan, “to make a historical investment in good-paying jobs—jobs in infrastructure and manufacturing, technology and innovation, small businesses and clean energy.” That should sound familiar because it was also President Obama’s stimulus plan, apparently as appropriate now—at the peak of a business cycle with the unemployment rate below 5 percent—as it was in the depth of a recession with unemployment at 10 percent.
Clinton name-checks “raising the minimum wage.” (But to what? She’d rather not say.) She name-checks “finally guarantee[ing] equal pay for women.” (Current law already guarantees this and has left little-to-no gap in pay for comparable work.) She endorses goals like “access to high-quality child care” and “preschool available to every 4-year-old.” And, of course, she will “guarantee paid leave so parents at all income levels can balance their jobs and lives,” though by admission that plan is not targeted at the poor. That’s pretty much it.
Clinton doesn’t mention education, which would align closely with her cause of “children,” but perhaps not as well with her cause of “becoming president.” Indeed, her campaign has chosen to ignore education reform entirely, focusing its K-12 plan on public-sector interest groups by “preparing, supporting, and paying every child’s teacher as if the future of our country is in their hands” and doubling the subsidy for investment in physical school buildings.
Welfare reform doesn’t make the cut, either. It was one of her husband’s signature policies and its effects are being hotly debated on its 20th anniversary this year. The Right has declared victory and wants to double down, extending the approach to other safety net programs. The Left has declared disaster and wants to retrench, offering more cash assistance to lower income households. Surely Clinton has an opinion—or thoughts on how a safety net that spends more than $1 trillion each year could best deploy its resources?
Her nods toward new approaches contradict each other. First, she wants to “expand Low Income Housing Tax Credits in high-cost areas.” Second, she wants to “model [my] anti-poverty strategy on Congressman Jim Clyburn’s 10-20-30 plan, directing 10 percent of federal investments to communities where 20 percent of the population has been living below the poverty line for 30 years.” The former is an $8 billion program of subsidies to housing developers, which Clinton now wants to focus more heavily on urban areas. But the latter calls for shifting investment toward counties with “persistent poverty,” of which 90 percent are rural. Clinton further confuses matters by promising to “put special emphasis on minority communities.” Clyburn has specifically noted that focusing on persistent-poverty counties is “not a partisan or racial issue” and touted as a key benefit that it is “simple and straightforward, with no regard to ethnicity or race.”
Admittedly, an op-ed is not much space to lay out a vision—especially when using half the space for observations like: “we have to do better,” “we still have work to do,” and “the American people will have to choose between an economy that works for everyone and an economy that benefits the well off at the expense of everyone else.” But combatting poverty should be a signature issue for Clinton, and one on which she and her 800-strong staff should be eager to make substantive progress. When will she, or any Democrat, ever have better terrain on which to introduce proposals and set the terms of debate against an opponent likely to retreat—or surrender on the spot? Alternatively, or in conjunction, why not extend an olive branch toward the conservative voters she needs to attract, offering to include ideas from across the ideological spectrum in pursuit of major bipartisan reform?
Instead, we get only cautious platitudes all the way down. Perhaps with a bit more focus on the stated passion for helping women and children, she might also get further with the exhibited passion for becoming president.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images