Making bipartisanship contagious

Visiting Capitol Hill. Bread for the World.

By Cynthia Woodside, Bread for the World Institute

Recently, we’ve seen some definite signs of bipartisanship here in the nation’s capital. The question is, is it readily transmissible to other politicians and policymakers? Can we help them catch the bipartisan bug?

One indication of bipartisanship is the release of a consensus report on how to reduce poverty and increase opportunity in the United States. The report is a joint project of the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution, which brought together a bipartisan group of conservatives and progressives and included a couple of moderates as well. The report, published December 3, offers some valuable insights on forging the bipartisan consensus that has proven so elusive in recent years.

First, participants set expectations about the process. All agreed that neither side has a monopoly on the truth and that solutions should draw on the best ideas of people on all sides of the question. Organizers said that people must begin to talk with and learn from their opposites on the political spectrum. Nothing less than our “economic future and national soul” are at stake.

All sides also agreed on some basic truths: the U.S. poverty rate is too high, and there is not enough economic mobility.

The report, Opportunity, Responsibility, and Security: A Consensus Plan for Reducing Poverty and Restoring the American Dream, focused mainly on the broad, interconnected areas of family, jobs, and education. Participating organizations said that while they believe improvements in these three areas will have the greatest impact on poverty and lack of economic mobility, many other issues are also important – e.g., housing and health.

Bread for the World would add hunger to the list of priority problems. As our own bipartisan membership faithfully reminds Congress, ending hunger will have significant positive impacts on health, education, employment, families, and equality – and we know it can be done. (For the most recent analysis and examples, see the 2016 Hunger Report, The Nourishing Effect: Ending Hunger, Improving Health, Reducing Inequality).   

Here are the bipartisan consensus recommendations of Opportunity, Responsibility, and Security:

  • Strengthen families in ways that will prepare children for success in education and work. Strategies include promoting a new cultural norm surrounding parenthood and marriage; promoting delayed, responsible childbearing; increasing access to effective parenting education; and helping less-educated men and women to prosper in work and family.
  • Improve the quantity and quality of work in ways that will better prepare young people – both men and women – to assume the responsibilities of adult life and parenthood. This can be accomplished by improving people’s skills so they qualify for well-paying jobs; making work pay more for people with less education; employing more people in hard-to-employ groups, including poorly educated people and those with criminal records; and ensuring that jobs are available.
  • Improve education in ways that will better help poor children to avail themselves of opportunities for self-advancement. Recommendations in this area include increasing public investment in two underfunded stages of education — preschool and postsecondary; educating the whole child to promote social-emotional and character development as well as academic skills; modernizing the organization and accountability of education systems; and closing resource gaps to reduce education gaps.  

Perhaps now is our opportunity to nurture nascent bipartisan efforts such as the AEI-Brookings project and thus help make bipartisanship the norm. It is entirely feasible to end hunger and poverty in our country and improve the lives of millions of our neighbors, but it will require buy-in across the political spectrum. Otherwise, Washington remains gridlocked. A first step is educating our leaders as to what is at stake and helping them see that both sides have something to contribute.

David Brooks, New York Times columnist and PBS NewsHour pundit, was the keynote speaker at the AEI-Brookings report release. He said that he is looking forward to an “Opportunity Act” being introduced in the next Congress by two polar political opposites — presidential candidates Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Bernie Sanders (D-VT). At that point, we will know without a doubt that bipartisanship can be contagious!

Cynthia Woodside is senior domestic policy analyst at Bread for the World Institute.

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