Earlier this spring, the Federal Reserve released a survey that found that 40 percent of American adults believe they would be unable to cover a $400 emergency expense without relying on a payday lender or selling a possession. Think about that for a minute. If this response is accurate, roughly 100 million Americans are literally living on the fiscal edge—one broken ankle, busted radiator, or lost job away from financial unraveling. While the macro-economy is booming and unemployment is low, real wages have not responded for the working class. In fact, when adjusted for inflation, middle-class wages have been essentially stagnant for the last 40 years. At the same time, the cost of tuition and fees at public, four-year universities have more than doubled since 2000. So while many of us are flourishing in the new economy, others are living with constant economic anxiety and few avenues for mobility. This understandable sense of being left behind is palpable in the frustration that many hold for policymakers, the growing mistrust of anything perceived as elite, and the social and cultural tensions that are flaring in debates over immigration, social welfare, and tax policy.
Over the course of the last year, the Bipartisan Policy Center has initiated a series of connected initiatives designed to enhance economic security and opportunity. We worked with Sens. Manchin (D-WV), Perdue (R-GA), Tillis (R-NC), and Warner (D-VA) to develop a series of specific actions to expand opportunity in Appalachia. To help millions in crisis, BPC is advocating for actionable policy solutions to confront the opioid epidemic and a series of recommendations to reform and strengthen the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. We have also spent time with leaders from the Dakotas, Montana, Nebraska, Wyoming, Iowa, and Minnesota to understand the unique challenges of providing quality health care in the most rural parts of the country. And we initiated a new effort focused on mental and behavioral health, which are too often an afterthought in our federal health care debates.
To build new pathways for opportunity, BPC is leading an effort with Rick Santorum and George Miller that has already had a meaningful impact on increasing federal resources for critical early childhood development programs. BPC’s Task Force on Main Street Finance is promoting a series of legislative and regulatory proposals to bolster small businesses. Despite the intense partisan battles since the financial crisis, there is broad-based support for encouraging and enabling banks to provide competitive loans to the small businesses that are the engines of our economy. Zip codes must not be allowed to determine economic opportunity, and BPC’s Task Force members have traveled around the country to make sure that our focus in D.C. reflects the real pressures being felt by Main Street businesses.
BPC is working with a new task force to address complex questions about the costs and quality of higher education. With student debt topping $1.5 trillion, millions of young students are ending their academic careers with debt that outstrips their potential earnings. This untenable situation is delaying family formation and home ownership and greatly burdening the aspirations of a generation of Americans striving to make it in a changing economy. BPC’s Higher Education Task Force is developing constructive policies that will increase accountability for higher education institutions while also promoting affordability and improving access for millions of aspiring students.
Finally, we are focused on the broader dynamics that encourage or constrain innovation and program efficacy. In our assessment of over 60 community-based programs, state and local officials have consistently raised concerns about rigid, uncoordinated, and duplicative federal requirements. At the same time, there are numerous examples of local programs that have failed to achieve the desired goals with little insight into what went wrong. BPC believes that one key to enabling innovation with accountability is creating a culture of evidence and knowledge sharing. BPC’s Evidence Project is working to make it easier for policymakers to access government data and for researchers to determine what works and why, while ensuring strong privacy protections are in place.
Taken together, BPC’s Economic Opportunity Initiative is creating the substantive insights, policy tools, and political coalitions needed to give millions of Americans the opportunity to work hard and get ahead.