A Nurse, the Safety Net, and National Discourse

October 30, 2013

By Jodie Levin-Epstein

This post originally appeared in "Spotlight on Poverty: The Source for News, Ideas, and Action."

Jodie Levin-Epstein

Jodie Levin-Epstein

Tears, tissues, and a standing ovation opened a recent briefing on poverty metrics in Washington, D.C.  The occasion was the release of Half in Ten's latest numbers on reaching the goal of cutting poverty in half in 10 years. Chelsey Hagy opened the briefing with her personal story of how she persisted in her goal to become a nurse despite significant hardship. She credited her success to government programs that helped her with a range of expenses, including health care for her special needs son, nursing school costs, and rent subsidies that enabled her young family to keep a roof over their heads. As Hagy recounted her path, she choked on words and dabbed at her eyes. So, too, did some in the audience. 

In sharing her personal experiences, Hagy gave a face to poverty statistics and proof that with essential supports a person can leave poverty behind. 

Can stories like Hagy's, along with the hard data, help move policy solutions across political aisles? After all, poverty strikes families regardless of their party affiliation. Nevertheless, even those who share in common the struggle to make ends meet may well have different ideas about the causes and solutions.

An enormous political divide exists over the role government should play in alleviating poverty and investing in programs that create opportunity. However, recent public statements from self-described conservatives suggests at least the potential for dialogue about the value of safety net programs and human capital investments: 

  • In "Time for Conservatives to Champion the Poor" Andrew Quinn of the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) writes, "Conservatives could score points on both politics and principle if they take up the task of prioritizing America's poor. The right is right that free enterprise, not sclerotic social democracy, is the way to spark the growth that struggling Americans need. But rolling back the safety net before those new jobs exist is politically senseless and bad policy besides.
  • In a conversation with former Florida Governor Jeb Bush at an education conference, Dr. Arthur C. Brooks, president of AEI, stated, "The government social safety net for the truly indigent is one of the greatest achievements of our society....We have to declare peace on the safety net."
  • In Politico, former Congressman Denny Rehberg (R-MT) argues that "Children Need a Good Start in Life" and that while he is not a "free spender" he believes we are not spending enough on programs such as Early Head Start, which "reaches a paltry 4 percent of babies and toddlers living in poverty." Rehberg concludes: "We spend $75 billion each year to incarcerate criminals but only $3.6 billion on early-childhood education. As the saying goes, pay me now or pay me later. Let's start now.
  • In a piece in The New York Times ("Ohio Governor Defies G.O.P. With Defense of Social Safety Net"), Republican Governor John Kasich is described as a political figure who "embodies conventional Republican fiscal priorities - balancing the budget by cutting aid to local governments and education - but he defies many conservatives in believing government should ensure a strong social safety net."
  • In a piece for the Christian publication World entitled "Conservatism is Compassionate," authors Mark Rodgers, formerly Sen. Rick Santorum's chief of staff and Jedd Medfind, who worked for President George W. Bush in the Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, define conservatism and acknowledge a role for government. They note that "In sharp contrast to an overbearing State, conservatives desire to cultivate vibrant community. That requires a balanced eco-system of inter-dependent institutions: families, businesses, houses of worship, civic organizations ... and yes, government. Each has a vital role to play."

In the current political environment, even the hint of the possibility of dialogue should not be ignored. Let's hope the Chelsey Hagys' in our nation help show us the way.

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