When we think about fighting poverty, we tend to think first and automatically, and solely, of programs. Head Start. Job Corps. Medicare. Medicaid. And many more—in fact, the Great Society featured 40 separate anti-poverty programs, and 60 different pieces of legislation relating to education. They were by no means the universal failures the right makes them out to be, but they did meet, obviously, with varying degrees of success.
But there’s another way to fight poverty, and we’ve been doing it for decades, and arguably with more success than the programs: It’s through the tax code. Changes to tax law, while admittedly not as uplifting to the progressive heart as new federal programs, have saved poor families billions of dollars over the years. To take the most obvious example, the earned-income tax credit, in place since 1975, has been an enormous boon to poor families, as has the child tax credit, which dates to 1997. Consider this fact: In 2013, the combined effect of those two tax-code provisions was four times greater than the amount spent on the main “welfare” program, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.
So the way we choose to tax is an essential component of today’s War on Poverty. In this issue, we’re very pleased to have Jason Furman, the chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, making the case that progressives need to start thinking about poverty as not just a program problem (although we should certainly keep doing that) but as a tax-code problem. Furman traces the history of how changes in taxation have helped poor families and describes ways that we can push the code even further. The first 50 years of the War on Poverty, Furman writes, have in fact been more successful than most people realize, and certainly more successful than our current political discourse on the subject suggests. But the next 50 can be even better, he argues, if we do a more effective job of fighting the war on two fronts.
Three more articles populate a well-rounded feature well. Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute delivers a fascinating historical essay on why the America of “voluntary associations”—the pre-welfare state America to which conservatives long to return—simply didn’t work. Konczal urges a redefinition of charity that includes public spending and purpose. Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress authors a strong case for why progressives must not withdraw into neo-isolationism and disengagement from the global stage, and must not believe that the United States is incapable of doing good in the world. And Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation reminds us that “higher education” doesn’t mean just the elite universities. Community colleges, which most of us never think about, educate 44 percent of our undergraduates. And these schools are in a bad way these days. Kahlenberg makes the case for action.
We’re delighted to welcome to our pages Molly Ball of The Atlantic, one of the sharpest political journalists in Washington today, responding to our symposium from the previous issue about the future of the Tea Party. And we think the book reviews are top-drawer: The New Yorker’s James Surowiecki on a history of economic forecasting; The American Prospect’s Monica Potts on a new book on poverty, and poverty writing in general; Vanessa Williamson on how rich people build political movements and persuade the non-rich to join them; Molly Worthen on the great liberal thinkers of the 1950s and whether they erred in moving away from religion; and former Virginia Representative Tom Perriello on whether Congress could benefit from having more members who come from the working class. Congress could benefit from many things, that surely being one of them.