Written and reported by Matthew Blake:
One might expect that a briefing on the latest federal poverty data by an ostensibly liberal Washington, DC think tank would explore some of the root causes of poverty in the country—broken social services, AIDS and other diseases not being treated, record-high incarceration rates. It would also seem timely to mention the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and what it revealed about poverty in America.
But the Brookings Institution’s "Poverty and Income in 2006" event in Washington today–coinciding with the release of the US Census Bureau’s annual data on poverty–mentioned none of those things. Instead, bizarrely enough, it became a celebration of all things Michael Bloomberg, even edging into an impromptu event to draft the New York City Mayor to run as a third party candidate for President.
Brookings Senior Fellow and moderator Ron Haskins set the tone by stating, "A lot of people in Washington talk about poverty, but only mayors and governors do." Therefore, Sawhill concluded, Bloomberg "is the perfect public official" to be the first keynote speaker in the event’s seven year history.
Bloomberg began by praising Brookings for being an institute above partisan politics, made a joke about how he was not running a stealth campaign for Attorney General and then launched into a 15-minute speech—about New York City education policy.
He finally got around to directly addressing poverty, rhetorically asking the crowd "How do you do it?" Bloomberg has presented himself as an alternative to the Republican right, but the former Democrat-turned Republican-turned Independent was quick to show that he’s no liberal, either. "You can’t fightpoverty without fighting the principle causes, which are poor education and dependence on government," he said. In respect to the latter, Bloomberg alleged that the 1996 federal Welfare Reform Act is the prime example of government effectively establishing the proper incentives in helping its most vulnerable citizens.
"It’s about breaking taboos like requiring mothers to work," Bloomberg said in reference to both the Welfare Reform Act and his own city policy to give the newly employed $150 a month in cash if they stay on the job. "You have to stick your neck out and try policies even if its results are unknown."
Bloomberg’s poverty policy in question includes expanding the earned income tax credit in ways he hopes will end the "marriage penalty" and giving the aforementioned "conditional cash payments" to adults who obtain and keep new jobs. It garnered the adulation from Sawhill and the other assembled Brookings fellows who spoke when Bloomberg—and about 300 of the assembled crowd of 400—left.
"About Michael Bloomberg’s proposals–I would just say amen," said Rebecca Blank, an economist and visiting fellow at Brookings. "I agree with it completely."
Senior Fellow Gary Burtless echoed Blank’s words: "I think Michael Bloomberg is absolutely right in his proposal."
In the spirit of intellectual diversity, Brookings invited conservative commentator Robert George, whose New York Post columns have been caustically critical of the Mayor’s conditional cash payment proposal. But even George had kind words for the Mayor, light-heatedly asking whether Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel or former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn would be his Presidential running mate.
Leaving the national press club, this reporter was swarmed by advocates with "Draft Bloomberg" posters and business cards. No word yet on whether they also received fellowships at Brookings.