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Where do Republicans stand on social mobility?

In the 2012 presidential race, the Republicans should favor human capital over investment capital.

August 31, 2011|By Matthew Continetti

Where's Horatio Alger when you need him? When the caucuses and primaries arrive in 2012, Republican voters will be choosing among candidates who embody the promise of American life. Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, both of whom came from humble beginnings, exemplify the continued possibility of social mobility. And Mitt Romney leads the life that many of us would like to have: wealth, a large family and multiple homes.

What none of these candidates has done so far, though, is champion a social mobility agenda. How are Perry, Bachmann and Romney going to help their struggling fellow citizens rise from the bottom of the heap to the top? They don't say.

That's a shame, because the candidates' own biographies suggest the template for such an agenda. Look at the current top prospects for the nomination. On one side are the self-made populists: Perry grew up poor in rural Texas, sold reference books door to door while studying at Texas A&M and flew C-130s in the Air Force before going into agriculture.

A child of divorce, Bachmann worked her way through college, graduate school and beyond, even as she found time to raise five kids and care for 23 foster children.

Say what you will about them, but neither candidate is a trust funder.

On the other side is someone who was born into wealth. Romney's father was a successful businessman and two-term governor of Michigan.

But even though Romney pulled the high card in life, he was determined to make his own mark. He built on his family legacy by earning dual law and business degrees from Harvard and helping found Bain Capital. He avoided the pratfall that awaits many who start at the top of America's income ladder: sliding back down.

These Republican candidates have great stories to tell about achieving success through education and hard work. Yet they are more interested in bashing President Obama's record, rolling back the healthcare overhaul and controlling federal spending.

And their policies — cutting the corporate, income, dividend, capital gains and estate tax rates, imposing a moratorium on regulations, reducing frivolous lawsuits — favor investment capital over human capital.

I happen to agree with most of these goals. And it's true that the first step on the path to self-improvement is securing employment. Lowering the unemployment rate and getting the budget under control are worthy objectives.

But they are just a starting point. Over the last few years, at think tanks and in the pages of conservative journals, center-right thinkers have reached a consensus on social mobility. They've concluded that it's stable families, education and full-time work that produce little Ricks, Micheles and Mitts.

The question facing the Republican candidates, then, is this: How do we align economic and social incentives in a way that fosters independence and drive?

The Republicans might start by looking at things that make life easier for working families. Rather than rescind the payroll tax cut due to expire at the end of the year, they could make the lower rate permanent. They could pay for this by cutting spending elsewhere and broadening the tax base through increasing the wages subject to tax — or through increasing the number of taxpayers via immigration reform (but only after first securing the border!).

Massively increasing the child tax credit, and applying that credit to both income taxes and payroll taxes, would ease the burden of rearing children and align the GOP with middle-class parents. More incentives to encourage telecommuting would also give families time to spend together.

Education is tricky. It's largely the province of local and state government, and for decades conservatives have dreamed of eliminating the federal Department of Education entirely. But that is a fantasy. A President Perry or Romney or Bachmann will have to have some sort of education agenda.

That might include an update of No Child Left Behind that gives more freedom to the states, makes it easier for parents to home school, gives grants to charter schools and — as difficult as this may be for some — includes the best elements of Obama's Race to the Top.

Finally, the next Republican president could build on the successes of the 1996 welfare reform by strengthening and enforcing work requirements, applying those rules to other forms of aid such as food stamps and consolidating the more than 70 federal antipoverty programs. The broader Republican economic agenda could be supported on the grounds that growth is the ultimate antipoverty program.

Family, education and work all helped the Republican front-runners realize the American dream. Now it's time for them to let the less fortunate in on the secret to success.

Matthew Continetti is the opinion editor of the Weekly Standard.

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