Howard Dean and Rob Reiner got it right on poverty. So do Kristof and WuDunn.

Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn have a New York Times article today that reinforces the need to refocus our anti-poverty efforts and spending on pregnant women, infants and toddlers. The research has been clear on this for years, but only sporadically do politicians or activists take note and make it a priority.

The crux of the problem is that “our interventions come too late,” write Kristof and WuDunn. “If there’s one overarching lesson from the past few decades of research about how to break the cycles of poverty in the United States, it’s the power of parenting — and of intervening early, ideally in the first year or two of life or even before a child is born.” They then go on to marshal the evidence, and it is indisputable.

The pioneers in this field include Rob Reiner, the actor and director, and Howard Dean, a medical doctor and former longtime governor of Vermont.

Prevention was at the core of Dean’s medical and political careers, leading to a program called “Success by Six.” I wrote about it more than 10 years ago in USA Today during Dean’s presidential campaign:

“Con Hogan, Dean’s human services secretary, says Dean embraced ‘Success by Six’ the instant it crossed his desk. The program brought together local health and education groups to reduce infant mortality, test for lead and hearing, prepare kids for school and head off problems such as child abuse and teen pregnancy. New parents received home visits and information. Hogan says Dean had ‘a broad view of what health was all about. I worked for five governors. This was a different way of doing business. It appealed to me enough that I worked for him for nine years.’”

Here’s what Dean had to say about the program during his White House bid:

“In 1991, I had to cut spending. The Commissioner of Corrections came to me asking for a 14% budget increase. Everyone else was being asked to cut spending, but prisons-the most expensive and least effective social service investment we make- needed more money.
My view of social spending changed in that instant. Because studies show that any competent kindergarten teacher can make a pretty good guess about the five kids most likely to end up in prison, I decided to focus Vermont’s efforts and money on new families with very young babies and children. Today in Vermont, we invest in our children. We visit every child and new mother in the hospital at the time of birth. We offer home visits two weeks after discharge to talk about everything from nutrition to housekeeping to substance abuse to the value of reading. Last year 91% of moms accepted our visit. I believe that one day this program will result in much lower incarceration rates in Vermont.”

Reiner nearly single-handedly created a funding stream for early-childhood services by convincing California voters to pass an initiative raising the tobacco tax. The money was dedicated to programs for pregnant women and children from birth to age 3. He had a high opinion of himself, his crusade and the method he was using to achieve his goal, all of which I made clear in my 1998 USA Today article about him. But it was also clear that he had science on his side and the greater good in mind.

California voters went for Reiner’s proposition, but state and national politicians have not followed through on a large scale. The Nurse-Family Partnership cited by Kristof and WuDunn is a prime example of the problem. “So here we have an anti-poverty program that is cheap, is backed by rigorous evidence and pays for itself several times over in reduced costs later on. Yet it has funds to serve only 2 percent to 3 percent of needy families. That’s infuriating,” they write.

President Obama, like other presidents before him, has not ignored very young children in his budgets and agenda. But no president has yet launched the intensive crusade that will be needed to achieve the difficult and monumental task of shifting spending away from college aid and prisons and toward the needs of pregnant women and tiny children.


The ‘war on women’ campaign that isn’t going to happen

Republicans are having a fine old time introducing the nation to Amanda Curtis, described by the Associated Press as the “little-known” Montana state legislator chosen by Democrats to run for the Senate. The state GOP’s “Meet Amanda Curtis” video makes her seem quite weird indeed — a pierced nostril, a Frankenstein earring and talk of socialism, anarchy, guns, debt and Christianity.

Having forced Sen. John Walsh out of the race after a plagiarism scandal, Democrats were admittedly in a crunch. And the first-term Curtis, 34, may or may not be as “unusual” as she seems in the video — there’s no context by which to judge. Still, Rep. Steve Daines, the GOP nominee, would have to work incredibly hard to lose this race.

Democrats might have salvaged something from the Montana Senate contest if Nancy Keenan had agreed to run. Keenan is a former special education teacher who later was elected to the state legislature and won three statewide elections as superintendent of public instruction. She also ran for the U.S. House and lost, and worked for the liberal People For the American Way.

All those are great qualifications, but the most important one is this: From 2004 to 2012, Keenan headed the former National Abortion Rights Action League, now called NARAL Pro-Choice America.

As a Democrat facing Daines, Keenan would have faced steep odds. But she would have brought high national visibility to the Democrats’ argument that Republican policies on reproductive health amount to a “war on women.” Given her years at NARAL, there would have been no way for her to minimize abortion, contraception and related issues; the only real alternative would have been to lean in and go for it.

With her special ed background of teaching disabled kids, Keenan was an interesting choice for NARAL and could have been a compelling candidate for Democrats. She likely would have been a polarizing one as well. But regardless of what public opinion polls showed, she would have been viewed as a serious contender. That’s a bar Curtis looks unlikely to clear.


Cleveland wins the 2016 Republican convention. Who will that help?

It’s official: The 2016 Republican convention will be held in Cleveland. The decision means a city struggling to revive its economy and erase the image of a polluted river on fire will have the chance to show a new face to the nation.

Of course, it also has a chance to fall on its face. But that didn’t stop Cleveland from pitching very hard to get the convention. In fact it was the only city that was a finalist for both the Republican and Democratic conventions. The Democratic list has now been winnowed to Birmingham, Columbus, New York, Philadelphia and Phoenix.

The reasons for choosing a convention venue are not exalted. They range from the practical — Are there enough hotel rooms? Is the right date available? Is the price right? – to the baldly political. Is the city in a swing state? That didn’t work in 2012 for the Democrats in Charlotte or the Republicans in Tampa, but it’s still a consideration. Are the state’s political personalities appealing or off-putting to centrist Americans? That was a particular factor this year, given that the other finalist for the GOP convention was Dallas.

“Dallas is a great city, but with it comes a web of political drama because of large local personalities like Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, Ron Paul” and George W. Bush, Republican consultant Kyle Downey told Roll Call. He said that would “disadvantage” the GOP nominee.

Ohio’s leading politicians, by contrast, are Gov. John Kasich, who expanded Medicaid; Sen. Rob Portman, whose son is gay and who supports gay marriage; and House Speaker John Boehner, who has made no secret of his desire to pass immigration reforms. That makes them all moderates by the standards of today’s GOP.

That’s a plus for the national party, given the millions of non-ideological voters who watch conventions. But what does Cleveland get out of it?

Cities have been competing forever to host headline events like conventions, Super Bowls and Olympics, even when gridlock, chaos, corruption, cost overruns, terrorist attacks and weather problems are definite possibilities and would make international headlines. Consider the conditions ridiculed by journalists and athletes when they showed up in Sochi for this year’s Winter Olympics, and the spring-like temperatures that produced slush and forced officials to break out an emergency supply of stored snow.

Dan Shaughnessy, a Boston Globe columnist, argues that Boston should say no to the 2024 Olympics. “We do not need the Summer Olympics,” he writes. “We already are a world-class city. What we need is bridge repair, housing, better public schools, an improved MBTA, and programs for the disenfranchised. We need better ways to get in and out of our city. We do not need an event that would strangle us financially and logistically for decades.”

It’s true that a city isn’t going to necessarily make money or bring in droves of visitors from an admiring America for years to come by staging a massive event. But the most important potential gains should be measured a different way. Pulling off a huge success spawns civic pride and confidence in political leaders, both of which can lead to more success.

This is true even if you are already a world-class city – witness New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s bid to hold the Democratic convention in Brooklyn. It’s even more true for a city that aspires to be world-class.

Frank Bruni captured the impact of aiming high in a New York Times column last weekend about Joe Riley. The mayor of Charleston, S.C., has been elected 10 times and is closing in on 40 years in office.

Riley’s success, as Bruni shows, has a lot to do with “the vision thing.” He had a clear idea of how others viewed the city and how to change that, whether it was to hire an African-American police chief in 1982 or to become the host of the Spoleto USA arts festival. The U.S. counterpart of the original Italian Spoleto Festival, it began in 1977 and is now an established part of the international music scene.

Riley told Bruni he pushed hard for Spoleto because “it forced the city to accept the responsibility of putting on something world-class.” It required Charleston to commit to excellence, a commitment that has endured and lifted the city.

So go for it, Cleveland.


The Enemy of Income Equality is Us

Two valuable additions to the inequality debate in The New York Times.

Today’s entry is “Let Them Eat Cash,” a well documented argument that the best way to help the poor may be to simply give them money. “You might worry handouts encourage idleness. But in most experiments, people worked more after they received grants,” author Christopher Blattman, a Columbia University professor, writes of experiments all over the world.

Research in the United States points to similar positive results. Direct cash had a major impact in a Cherokee tribe, for instance, after a casino opened and members began receiving annual payments.

This idea is starting to receive attention from some Republican presidential prospects. It should attract interest across the political spectrum — from both liberals who want to improve results and conservatives who want to streamline anti-poverty programs.

The Times concluded its Great Divide series Sunday with a Joseph Stiglitz piece headlined “Inequality Is Not Inevitable.” “We have located the underlying source of the problem: political inequities and policies that have commodified and corrupted our democracy,” he writes. Different choices would produce different laws and results. But for that to happen, first we’ll need different politics.

 


How to run for president as a capitalist, Hillary Clinton edition

Back when Mitt Romney was having so much trouble dealing with his wealth on the presidential campaign trail, I wrote a piece for The Atlantic called “5 Rules for Being a Successful Capitalist in Politics.” In short: Get rich the old-fashioned way, imagine your tax returns on homepages the world over, keep your money in your own country, give away a lot of it, and make clean breaks with previous jobs (the better to escape responsibility for what happens after you’re “gone”).

That’s not bad advice. But given Hillary Clinton’s difficulties as she promotes “Hard Choices” and ponders a 2016 presidential run, it’s time for a personalized update:

1. Accept where you are in your life right now. If you’re rich, don’t try to remind people of how poor you felt years ago — including while you were living in the White House. Seriously. Even compared with other presidents and first ladies, you were well positioned. Ulysses S. Grant was short of money and dying of cancer when he wrote his memoirs, hoping the two-volume set would support his wife after he was gone. He didn’t have Amazon, social media, cable TV or an advance. And since he died five days after he finished, he wasn’t available for promotion purposes. Luckily for him, his publisher was Mark Twain, who knew how to market a book. Mrs. Grant ended up with royalties equivalent to about $10 million today.

2. Eliminate the phrase “hard work” from all discussions of your income. It may sound better to say you worked hard than to say you inherited all your money from your mom and dad, but it comes off as a slight to others. Lots of people work hard — harder than you in some cases, and at far less pleasant tasks. Some of them don’t even make a living wage. Also, the history of the phrase “hard work” in politics suggests it’s risky. George W. Bush used it as a verbal crutch in a 2004 debate, repeating it three and four times in a paragraph or even a sentence. That led to a hilarious Saturday Night Live parody. Which is something you definitely don’t want.

3. Talk about the responsibility to give back, and not just through service or “hard work.” In other words, talk about money. Should income tax rates for rich people be higher? What about rates on dividends, capital gains and inheritances? Should market transactions be taxed? Should corporate welfare be axed? If you support any of these and would pay higher taxes as a result, explain that — and why you wouldn’t mind.

4. Try to keep the spotlight off your children, especially if they live in $10.5 million apartments and earn $600,000 a year for a part-time position that, to put it gently, isn’t a natural fit. The impending grandchild will give everyone a golden glow for a while, but how long can that last?

5. Don’t amass piles of money by means that don’t fit with your image or political goals. And if you’re already doing that, then stop, especially if you don’t need more money. In the case of Clinton, who is raking in $200,000-plus per speech, Ruth Marcus put it perfectly in The Washington Post: “This behavior borders on compulsion, like refugees who once were starved and now hoard food.” What is the point of provoking someone like Jon Ralston, the reigning pundit in swing-state Nevada, by making a foundation associated with the University of Nevada-Las Vegas pay $225,000 for a Clinton speech?

Of course, this will all be moot if Clinton decides not to run in 2016. It would be, as they say, hard work. The book tour is giving her a preview of just how hard.


The next crusade for Bill de Blasio

Now that he’s gotten a pile of money from the state to meet his campaign promise of universal prekindergarten in New York City, Ginia Bellafante proposes that Mayor Bill de Blasio turn his attention to babies and toddlers. It’s a great idea, because research shows that pre-K is sometimes too late to compensate for problems that start at birth and even earlier.

The “zero-to-three” movement has no shortage of prominent champions, from Bill Clinton’s 1997 White House conference on brain development to Hillary Clinton’s current involvement in a “too small to fail” initiative; from Rob Reiner’s successful 1998 drive to raise the California tobacco tax and use the proceeds for prenatal and early childhood services, to a Bush administration conference in 2001, to a home visiting program created in the Affordable Care Act signed by President Obama. As governor of Vermont, Howard Dean instituted a highly effective “Success by Six” program involving home visits to new parents, and proposed a national version during his 2004 presidential campaign. Parentsin the state received health care, child care, job training and parenting classes tailored to their needs.

Child abuse in Vermont was cut nearly in half after Dean’s program started. Research on parenting and school readiness suggests the possibility of equally dramatic results in that area. Children whose parents don’t read, talk and interact with them from birth are at an often insurmountable disadvantage by the time they reach prekindergarten.

Bellafante, a columnist for The New York Times, underscores her plea to de Blasio with an anecdote about a pregnant teen who says she doesn’t need books for her baby because “I already have one.”

It’s true that if de Blasio takes up the challenge of advocating for the youngest of children, he’d be one of many public figures to do so. But he’s in the spotlight right now as a result of his campaign promises to refocus the city from quality-of-life issues to the needs of residents who are struggling. If he follows up his pre-K success with a commitment to infants and toddlers, he is likely to generate the types of eye-popping statistics that assure attention will be paid.


Is the minimum wage drive a passing fancy for Obama and his party?

The pop-culture takeaway from President Obama’s campaign-like pep rally in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan is undoubtedly his joke that if Republican policies were on the menu at a deli, they’d be listed as a “stinkburger” or a “meanwich.”

But there was more significance in his fired-up, unbridled performance, which reflected the energy behind the Democrats’ push for an increase in the minimum wage. It’s an issue that unites not just the party but the country, with roughly two-thirds in polls saying they support a three-year rise from the current $7.25 to $10.10 per hour.

Hiking the minimum wage is a populist issue and a women’s issue (nearly two-thirds of those earning minimum wage are women). And though a recent Congressional Budget Office report suggested the boost could cost up to half a million jobs, other indicators are more positive. The best real-life evidence comes from Washington state, where voters approved a minimum wage hike in 1998 and cost-of-living increases after that. The state’s current minimum wage of $9.32 is the highest in the country, yet job growth there has outpaced the national rate, poverty has trailed it, and eateries there have done fine. Other researchers have found no economic disparities between counties that sit side by side in states that have and haven’t raised their minimum wage.

The Senate may vote as soon as next week on whether to raise the wage, and the 60 votes it needs to clear procedural obstacles are not a sure thing. The House is far less receptive. Even the most dedicated proponents of raising the wage are pessimistic. “It has often taken several years and sometimes two or more Congresses until it actually came about,” says Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “I suspect that more likely than not we’ll have a similar situation this time.”

That hasn’t dampened the fervor of the White House. A search of the White House website shows that before Obama’s trip to Ann Arbor on Wednesday, the subject had already come up 59 times since the beginning of the year, in reports, press briefings and presidential remarks, on conference calls and at donor dinners, in a proclamation about Cesar Chavez Day and a tribute to retiring California congressman George Miller. Obama even called for a minimum-wage increase in a column in the Dallas Morning News. In fact, five of the administration’s last seven weekly video addresses were devoted to the minimum wage.

The effectiveness of repetition as a communications technique has been documented in many psychological studies. The more something is said, the more people believe it is true, especially if they aren’t paying close attention. It’s a perfect tool for politics, and the titles of its videos alone show the White House has taken the lesson to heart:

Feb. 15: Calling on Congress to Raise the Minimum Wage

Feb. 22: Time to Lift the Minimum Wage and Give America a Raise

March 8: Time for Congress to Raise the Minimum Wage for the American People

March 22: Rewarding Women’s Hard Work and Increasing the Minimum Wage

March 29: Raise The Minimum Wage – It’s The Right Thing To Do For Hardworking Americans

There’s no question about the political value of this message. Nothing says “I’m on your side” like standing up for low-wage workers. It’s a gritty, symbolic and popular issue, and 50 percent in a new Quinnipiac poll say they’d be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports raising the minimum wage, compared with 25 percent who would be less likely. And there’s no question that the spotlight shined by Obama and others may give some momentum to local and state initiatives to raise the minimum wage.

What is unclear is whether Obama and his party will have the time, energy, resources and focus to continue this push after the most likely outcome, the death of the minimum-wage hike on Capitol Hill. There are still seven months to the election. Four years of Republican messaging on the evils of Obamacare are set to continue through those seven months. Democrats now have an issue and a chance to prove that they, too, have learned the value of repetition.


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