February 20, 2018; Colorlines

As one of America’s oldest foundations, the Russell Sage Foundation was established by Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage in 1907 with $10 million ($263 million in inflation-adjusted dollars) and the ambitious goal of improving social and living conditions in the United States. One hundred and eleven years later, the foundation’s mission lives on with an active programming and grant making mix that supports education and research for journalists and academics in the social sciences. As introduced in a recent blog post, the foundation’s latest double-issue journal serves as a direct response to “an economy characterized by large numbers of unstable and low-wage jobs, a fraying social safety net and stagnant wages.”

Elaborating on the timing of the publication, Katherine A. Magnuson, a poverty researcher at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and an editor of the double-issue journal, told Colorlines, “We felt it was important to bring together a set of fresh ideas that would engage with what we have learned about anti-poverty policies of the past in order to generate positive and innovative solutions.”

The first issue highlights approaches to tax and transfer programs that would increase the well-being of low-income families. As one example, H. Luke Shaefer and colleagues suggest replacing the current child tax credit and child tax exemption in the federal income tax with an unconditional child allowance. Doing this, they estimate would reduce child poverty by 40 percent. Highlighting the success of the country’s work-based social safety net over the last twenty years through programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the paper focuses on the particular challenges of families whose parents are unable to maintain regular work. According to the authors, this allowance “would provide a base-level source of cash support—an income floor—for our most vulnerable families, and indeed all families with children.”

The second issue examines policies that would enhance education and training programs and broaden access to higher paying jobs for low-income people. As another example, Harry J. Holzer makes a case for a “Race to the Top” in public higher education to improve education and employment. Focusing on the challenge of low completion rates at community colleges by low-income students, Holzer proposes a competitive grant program in which institutions “would get a well-targeted infusion of resources in return for greater accountability in state funding, based on the subsequent earnings of their minority or disadvantaged students.” Extending the comparison with the Race to the Top program by the Obama administration in which the Department of Education dispersed “about $4.35 billion to 18 states and the District of Columbia,” Holzer makes a case for an allocation of $5 billion to $10 billion, which he argues “would likely have stronger impacts on college behavior, and strengthen the incentives of all states to apply.”

Reflecting on the journal as a whole and its place in the national dialog, editor Magnuson told Colorlines, “The proposals range from rather incremental to much more innovative—but ultimately, when taken together we hoped they might shift and reframe the discussion in ways that would be forward thinking.” While the current political environment may not be auspicious for anti-poverty gains, the Russell Sage Foundation’s latest publication nevertheless serves as a valuable reminder of what programs such as SNAP have achieved and provides some hopeful new possibilities for the future.—Anne Eigeman