An Idea For Republicans

Written by David Frum on Friday October 28, 2011

In the 1990s, many Republicans took the problem of hard-core poverty seriously. (One of those poverty-conscious Republicans was Sen. Rick Santorum, now the one presidential candidate who takes seriously the data on faltering upward mobility in America.)

In 1999 and 2000, candidate George W. Bush promised to improve educational outcomes for students from poor families. He defended the Earned Income Tax Credit. He drew attention to the problems facing the children of prisoners.

To put it mildly, poverty alleviation has not been a Republican theme in the current cycle.

To some degree, this is an understandable reaction to the disappointments of the Bush presidency.

But what is understandable is not necessarily right - and this disregard of the poverty problem is wrong, all the more wrong because of the dismaying surge in poverty since 2008.

Disregard of poverty is especially wrong from the point of view of people who want to cut government budgets. Poor people get sicker (and then have to be covered by Medicaid). They commit crimes (and must be sentenced to costly prison terms). They cost the Treasury more in benefits than they contribute in taxes.

Disregard of poverty is dangerous because sooner or later, society will decide to care about poverty again - and may then be susceptible to wrongheaded and costly solutions: such as trying to enrich the poor by weakening credit standards so that they can speculate on real estate. Not a good plan, it turns out.

Historically, America's main anti-poverty program has been the public schools. Americans have trusted to quality education to raise the poor out of poverty over a generation or two. No Child Left Behind is only the latest expression of this hope.

In recent decades, however, these hopes have been dashed. The US spends more and more on schooling - even as poverty seems to become more pervasive, intractable and unescapable.

This failure should not surprise us. By the time a child enters the public school system, that child's life chances have already been largely set. By age 5, it's already getting very late to redirect the human trajectory.