Michael Tomasky introduces Issue #26
The poverty rate has shot back up in the United States since the Great Recession. The home-mortgage crisis hit low-income Americans the hardest. Millions of Americans are still unemployed, and many millions more live precariously paycheck to paycheck. Yet our political discourse, as usual, makes little room for these issues and these Americans. And when room is made, it’s usually to talk about a very short list of government programs designed to alleviate the most grinding poverty.
But there’s another way to think and talk about low-income Americans, and a set of possible solutions to the problems they face that go far beyond welfare. We are proud to share those ideas and present in this issue a symposium on asset building. The term and the movement associated with it, which started in 1991, refer to a far more thoroughgoing governmental response than merely getting poor people through daily life. The asset-building movement pushes for policies that can help low-income people build wealth. And to paraphrase a certain well-known campaign phrase: Yes, they can. With a little assist.
With the support of the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED), one of our country’s leading organizations devoted to long-term strategies that alleviate poverty, Democracy has assembled several of the best-known experts in the field to write about a range of issues: the effects of the Great Recession that were unique to people toward the bottom of the income ladder; the importance of promoting saving; the problem of “wealth stripping”; ways to prevent massive numbers of foreclosures on lower-income homeowners; the challenges faced by the roughly nine million “unbanked” Americans, who must rely on predatory lenders for financial transactions; the special dilemmas faced by the 2.7 million families who live in manufactured homes, which are financed much more like cars than traditional homes.
We are timing this issue to appear in conjunction with CFED’s biennial conference in Washington this September. Our hope is twofold: first, that attendees of that conference dig into and enjoy the symposium; and second, that our regular readers, a group that includes powerful policy-makers in Washington, learn a few things about this fascinating field. And we hope that we can someday get to a point in this country where lower-income people get the assistance—not handouts, assistance—they need and don’t suffer financial penalties just for being poor.
Of course, we do know it’s election time. You should see us around the office following election blogs and our Twitter feeds. And we’re delighted to have the noted congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, authors most recently of the bracing It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, writing on the election, the electorate, and the future. They’re not handicapping Ohio here; rather, they’re handicapping, as it were, the chances that a better electorate can someday produce a better class of politician, more amenable to compromise (especially on the right). It’s a different angle on a much-discussed problem.
Our editorial board member William Galston tackles the issue of long-term nursing care for the elderly and debilitated and suggests that we cannot, as the baby boomers age, put off discussion of this difficult subject any longer. Kent Greenfield, a professor of law at Boston College, presents his provocative idea for how to deal with the post-Citizens United world. That ruling gave carte blanche power to corporations to invest in politics. Instead of changing the law, Greenfield argues, let’s change the corporation.
The books section is stellar. Esteemed journalist Ronald Brownstein has a timely take on Robert Caro’s new Lyndon Johnson volume. The eminent Stanford historian David M. Kennedy reviews the lament about market values by philosopher Michael Sandel. The Daily Beast’s Michelle Goldberg brings her keen critical eye to Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men. Ben Adler, a journalist who writes frequently on urbanism, considers Alan Ehrenhalt’s new book about America’s urban and suburban futures. And Joshua Kurlantzick, a leading scholar of Southeast Asia, digs into a new biography of the Burmese reform hero Aung San Suu Kyi.
Finally, Sharon Lerner, Demos fellow and author of The War on Moms, responds to Sarah Blustain’s book review in the previous issue by arguing that maybe the differences between French and American styles of mothering have less to do with culture than with the countries’ respective policies. And our own Ethan Porter takes a rare Democracy venture into the world of sports with some interesting thoughts on how professional sports can be made more affordable for the average fan.
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