- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 25, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 25 (UPI) — Further inroads in helping the working poor break the cycle of poverty are unlikely in the foreseeable future, although a broad consensus among policymakers across ideological spectrum has lead to a variety of government initiatives to do so, policy experts said Monday at a think tank-sponsored forum in Washington.

Andrea Kane, a nonresident fellow at the liberal-centrist Brookings Institution and director of public policy for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, said that anti-poverty policy in 1990s was driven by a widespread belief among both liberals and conservatives in leveling the playing field for those who work hard and play by the rules.

"If people do their best, there ought to be opportunity to move up the ladder and fulfill the American dream," Kane said during a panel discussion sponsored by the New America Foundation, the Corporation For Enterprise Development, The Hudson Institute, the National Urban League, and Demos, a non-profit advocacy group committed to expanding economic opportunity.

"I think those clichs really do resonate with the American people," she said.

The panelists said that this common ground lead to the expanded availability of the Earned Income Tax Credit — a refundable federal tax credit that supplements the earnings of low-income workers — and the use of federal vouchers to supplement the cost of housing for struggling families.

Other positive steps have included the expansion of government-sponsored healthcare coverage to more low-income children, and the use of enterprise zones to attract businesses to poorer communities.

Stephen Goldsmith, special adviser to President George W. Bush for faith-based and not-for-profit initiatives, cited the debate over welfare reform as an example of where a common ground was found across the ideological divide.

"The post-welfare reform world has been a sea change," said Goldsmith during the panel discussion. "There is (now) a broad consensus that a work-based benefit system is where we want to be."

However, Goldsmith said he believed that decidedly ideological questions over how government could best address issues such as teen pregnancy, whether children belong with two parents, and the involvement of fathers with their children, will become central to the debate over welfare reform in the future.

"I think the interesting arguments now become the value arguments themselves," he said. "These are provocative question that we probably should address."

Bob Greenstein, executive director of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and a renowned expert on the federal budget, said at the forum that the multipartisan consensus on anti-poverty policy has begun to degrade under fiscal policy pressures, and because of the current political environment.

"Underlying the consensus was a willingness to provide (government) resources so that the consensus could be acted upon," said Greenstein. "When I look at what has happened now, I see the first steps toward a reversal."

Greenstein said that revenue losses stemming from the Bush's tax cut, along with the high costs associated with the coming retirement of the baby boom generation, will combine to squeeze financial resources to the point that programs to help the working poor will face significant cuts.

He added that Bush's budget proposal for 2004 effectively reduces the number of families that can receive government assistance for child-care services. Such reductions in programs for the working poor are already being seen at the state level.

"I know of no state that wants to limit health insurance for poor families," said Greenstein. "(But) a growing number of states are doing just that because they see no choice in terms of balancing their budgets in the current fiscal crisis."

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