Many Americans whose beliefs are somewhere in the great political middle are tired of the false dichotomies of left and right. What would a radical centrist agenda — a purple-state alternative to the ideologies forced upon populations in deep-red and deep-blue states — look like?
Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution, took on this assignment with her 2018 book The Forgotten Americans: An Economic Agenda for a Divided Nation. Her agenda includes “policies that are better aligned with American values and responsive to people’s actual day-to-day needs,” with a focus on “the value of work and the importance of jobs and wages.” She attempts to thread the divide between a Democratic Party that has “dozens of good policy ideas but a values framework that is sometimes out of step with the country’s” and a Republican Party that emphasizes widely shared values (such as personal responsibility) but has abandoned its former commitment to pragmatism and limited but effective government.
In this podcast conversation, Isabel Sawhill discusses her experiences in “growing up in a time when there weren’t a lot of opportunities for women,” and how she came to work on policy with Brookings and other think tanks as well as in government; during the Clinton administration, she served as an associate director at the Office of Management and Budget, responsible for the oversight of nearly all of the federal government’s social programs. She describes her relations with eminent policy-world figures such as Alice Rivlin and Richard Reeves, with whom she co-authored the 2020 study A New Contract with the Middle Class. She also talks about her work with Bush White House veteran Ron Haskins to identify the key correlates of upward mobility, which they famously popularized as “the success sequence,” in which about three-quarters of Americans reach the middle class provided that they:
1. Graduate from high school;
2. Maintain a full-time job or have a partner who does; and
3. Have children (if they choose to become parents) after age 21 and while married or in a committed partnership.
She analyzes the factors that have made many Americans feel “left behind” and discouraged about the country’s future. According to Sawhill, possible policy remedies include an expansion of vocational education, opportunities for workers adversely impacted by new developments in technology and trade to retrain or relocate, a social insurance system focused on lifelong education and family care in addition to retirement, and ways to repair the culture through national service. She also discusses her recent analysis of emerging threats to democracy and her reasons for remaining optimistic about the fate of the American experiment.
Isabel Sawhill: What’s the responsibility of individuals versus the responsibility of society or government to help people on a positive trajectory? I think it’s some of both, and I don’t have much patience for those who say it’s all one or all the other.
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center Podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography, and current events. And I’m thrilled to be joined today by Isabel Sawhill, Senior Fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution. She’s a true legend among policy wonks, one of the nation’s foremost and most respected analysts on a wide range of economic and social issues including fiscal policy, economic growth, poverty and inequality, welfare reform, and family stability. She was formerly a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and has been a visiting professor at Georgetown Law School and director of the National Commission for Employment Policy.
From 1993 to 1995, she served as an associate director at the Office of Management and Budget where she oversaw the human resource programs of the federal government, accounting for one-third of the federal budget. And she’s the author of numerous policy papers, articles, and books, including most recently The Forgotten Americans: An Economic Agenda for a Divided Nation. Welcome, Belle!
Isabel Sawhill: Thank you, Geoff. Great to be here.
Geoff Kabaservice: I’m really happy to have you here. I’ve wanted to bring you on this podcast for a long time, for many reasons, but also because — as my introductory spiel tried to convey — this pod’s focus is on political moderation. And I was particularly intrigued when I reread The Forgotten Americans, which came out in 2018, that you wrote: “I reject both far-right and far-left ideas in favor of a radical centrist approach. Radical combined with centrist may sound like an oxymoron, but it doesn’t need to be.” And that formulation is to me like catnip is to a cat.
But before we address that, can you tell me about what you had in mind before the 2016 election when you started writing this book, The Forgotten Americans, and how your perspective changed after Donald Trump’s election?
Isabel Sawhill: Well, like a lot of people, I was really shocked when he was elected. None of us (or most of us) didn’t expect he would be elected back in 2016. Then I wanted to know how could that have happened. Why was he elected? And like a lot of people, I decided that there had been a lot going on for quite a while in our country that made it ripe for a Donald Trump. People had lost faith in government. They were becoming more divided — divided economically, divided culturally, divided politically. And he spoke to some resentments amongst quite a large group of mainly white working-class Americans. And so I decided to focus on this issue and that group and try to figure out if there was a way to reach out to them, to find policies and politics that would work for them and also for the rest of the country. And that was my goal in the book.
And I guess that on your theme of moderation, or the idea that I’m a radical centrist, I was… One way I would put it is I was trying to marry red-state values with blue-state policies, because I thought that the people on the right were actually putting out the right messages and talking about the right values that a majority of the public could endorse, but I thought they were pretty bad on coming up with specific policies that were pragmatic and could actually improve people’s lives. And people on the left, in the meantime, I think were bad at messaging, bad at values, but really good at designing effective policies. I wanted to try to find some mesh between the two. You could call it a purple agenda.
Geoff Kabaservice: Who are “the forgotten Americans,” in your conception?
Isabel Sawhill: It is a little bit arbitrary, but in order to be able to measure stuff, I said that they were people without college degrees; they were mostly working class; they had incomes below the median, meaning below about $70,000 a year in 2018; and they were mostly the white working class. And they voted for Trump by an overwhelming majority — I think it was 67% to 28% for Hillary Clinton. There had never been anything like that kind of a gap in voting behavior. And of course those are the people who used to vote for Democrats, so Democrats have been wringing their hands and saying to themselves, “How did we lose this group and what have we done wrong?”
Geoff Kabaservice: I’m sure we’ll get into that. But I would love to hear something first about where you grew up, what your early influences were, and how you came to focus on the issues that have defined your career.
Isabel Sawhill: I actually was born in Washington, D.C and grew up here. I’ve lived all around the country subsequently, but I have my roots here. I came from a comfortable family, I was well-educated, but I was also a woman of my times. And by that I mean that I am much older than I’m sure most of your guests. And I’m not even a baby boomer — I’m older than the baby boomers.
Geoff Kabaservice: A Silent Generation person, like Joe Biden.
Isabel Sawhill: I grew up in a time when there weren’t a lot of opportunities for women. So I had this good education, but my first job was as a secretary. Actually, my first job was as a file clerk. I later got promoted to being a secretary after my father sent me to secretarial school and I got my certificate in typing and shorthand. And then I got married fairly young, and my husband was in a training program on Wall Street, and I was jealous. Here I was pounding the typewriter every day, and he was learning all this new stuff and getting paid to do it. And so I would complain bitterly to him. And he finally said, “Stop whining and go out and do something about it.” I might not have liked that at the time, but he was exactly right.
So I went back to school at night. I eventually got a Ph.D. in economics. After that I worked in a bunch of different government jobs off and on, and later ended up directing the commission that you mentioned, the Commission for Employment Policy. I was in the think tank world, first at the Urban Institute and later at Brookings. I’ve been at Brookings now for over 20 years. I was Vice President for Economic Policy, then headed up a Center on Children and Families, and now I’m just a senior fellow. But along the way I, as you mentioned, served in the Clinton administration and had responsibility for basically all of the social programs of the federal government. And I just learned a ton about both policy and politics during my various periods in government, first as a civil servant and later as a political appointee.
Geoff Kabaservice: Your complete cv is on the Brookings website. It extends to something like 40 pages; you’ve written and done a lot. But looking at the fine point there, it appears that you attended Wellesley College for three years without graduating.
Isabel Sawhill: That’s correct. And the reason is because, again, back in the 1950s and ‘60s, if you were a woman, what you were told was you should get “A ring by spring or your money back.” Your aspiration was to be a wife and a mother and to catch a good husband — and I was fortunate enough to catch a great one. So as soon as he graduated from Princeton, I said to hell with this college stuff. I really didn’t like it. I cut a lot of my classes, I played bridge all the time, I drank too much, I did a lot of dating and socializing, and I didn’t learn very much, which I greatly regret now. But I did accomplish something, which was that I got married to a great guy. (Unfortunately he’s not with us anymore.) Then I realized that being a wife and a mother was not everything it was cracked up to be — or let me put it differently, it wasn’t well suited to my temperament. I needed more than that.
Geoff Kabaservice: Of course, the Seven Sisters schools for women in the 1950s are educational institutions that those who attended them often look back to with considerable nostalgia, because this was a time when many of the Ivy League schools like Princeton, Yale, Harvard, were not co-educational…
Isabel Sawhill: That’s right.
Geoff Kabaservice: …and therefore the intellectual caliber of the women’s schools was often of equal or superior to those schools. However, it doesn’t seem you had quite that same positive impression of Wellesley.
Isabel Sawhill: Well, I don’t think it was Wellesley’s fault, I think it was my fault. I think Wellesley was a very good school and I had very good professors, if I’d only known enough to pay attention to them. But I didn’t know enough. I was pretty naive and pretty immature back in those days. I had to learn the hard way that I should have paid more attention. If you looked at my average grade level at Wellesley, it was dismal.
Geoff Kabaservice: There was a point in The Forgotten Americans where you actually did say something about your own life story. You said you and your husband were in relatively straitened circumstances. You ate a lot of tuna casseroles, you drove a second-hand Ford, you borrowed money from your parents when you weren’t able to pay the rent on your apartment in Brooklyn, you worked at a clerical job. And then I guess you and your husband both ended up going to graduate school at night, is that right?
Isabel Sawhill: That’s correct.
Geoff Kabaservice: So you got a Ph.D. as well as your B.A. from New York University in the 1960s; you got your Ph.D. in 1968. And that was a time when women were not encouraged to become graduate students because the assumption was that they would not be hired.
Isabel Sawhill: I was the only woman in my Ph.D. class.
Geoff Kabaservice: And so those obstacles were real.
Isabel Sawhill: Oh, absolutely. And you had to be pretty damn motivated to stick with it. But at that point I was. My motivation shifted a lot after I got married. And after getting B-minuses and C-pluses, I started getting As and A-pluses.
Geoff Kabaservice: And what part of economics were you most interested in at that time?
Isabel Sawhill: You know, I was interested in all of it. I actually took a lot of business school courses, but I think I took just about everything. I didn’t really focus in on social policy issues until I was quite a lot older. I wouldn’t say I had some passion for a particular part of economics when I was in my early twenties, say.
Geoff Kabaservice: And you did manage to get a job, I assume coming out of that Ph.D. program, working for the government as a policy analyst?
Isabel Sawhill: That’s right. I actually took the civil service exam and got a civil service rating; it was a GS-14. And I first worked at HHS, actually for Mancur Olson and Alice Rivlin, who were both mentors and inspirations to me. And then I later went to OMB as a civil servant. This was long before I became a political appointee much later. And then I went finally to the Urban Institute after that.
Geoff Kabaservice: And when you say HHS, the department would’ve been Health, Education and Welfare at that time.
Isabel Sawhill: It would have been HEW in those days. You’re too young to even know that, Geoff.
Geoff Kabaservice: It’s an interesting story. I think Oveta Culp Hobby, who was a woman, was the first head of HEW, if I’m getting that right. And then people like Marion Folsom came along. Who was secretary during your time? Was that Elliot Richardson’s period?
Isabel Sawhill: Let’s see, no, it was John Gardner, I think maybe just before I came. I’m trying to remember now… And then there was Wilbur Cohen.
Geoff Kabaservice: Right, for whom the building is named now, actually. And of course you mentioned Alice Rivlin. She is somebody who is, again, legendary inside the Beltway and not well known at all outside of it. And I have been reading some of her posthumously published book called Divided We Fall: Why Consensus Matters. And she mentions in there that you were friends and talked to each other practically daily and helped to define each other’s ideas. Can you just tell me something about Alice Rivlin and who she was?
Isabel Sawhill: Alice was a no-nonsense person. She was very smart, obviously, but her communication skills were really excellent, particularly her written communication skills. And we wrote books together, we worked on fiscal policy together — I think we wrote two books together on fiscal policy. That was before the most recent book that you mentioned, which was published posthumously. And she was always supportive of me, and I took a lot from watching her. I had very few role models, but she was one of the role models when I was younger, and so I looked up to her and wanted to be like her. And I was thrilled when I was invited to go to Brookings and be colleagues with people like her. In the early days when I was at Brookings, all of the greats were there. It was an amazing place to be.
Geoff Kabaservice: Alice Rivlin served as deputy director of OMB from ‘93 to ‘94, and then director from ‘94 to ‘96 during the Clinton administration. Besides her clarity of oral expression and written expression, what was it that you admired about her and wanted to be like?
Isabel Sawhill: She was tough-minded, and if she didn’t agree with something she wasn’t going to sugarcoat it. And she was also always going to go to a common-sense explanation and solution to any problem; she didn’t get hung up by academic ideas and ways of writing. She was very optimistic. She even at the time she died — and you can pick this up in the book you just alluded to — thought that we could come together as a country. She wanted bipartisan solutions, she wanted compromise.
Some people would’ve said she was naive about that. Bob Reischauer and I were both on a panel talking about her after this latest book came out, and one of the things we both said about her is that optimism was just part of her temperament. Because a lot of people questioned it: they said, “Really? You expect Democrats and Republicans to be compromising with each other in a post-Trump world?” — because we were in a post-Trump world by then. And she thought we still could. And she of course formed a commission with Pete Domenici and they put out a report on fiscal policy. She was also a member of the other fiscal commission, the one that Paul Ryan was on. It was headed by… who was it headed by? The guy from Wyoming, the senator from Wyoming.
Geoff Kabaservice: Alan Simpson.
Isabel Sawhill: Yeah, Simpson-Bowles. She was a member of Simpson-Bowles, and Simpson-Bowles did come close to making a grand compromise work, awfully close. But I think that was the last time we were very close. We haven’t been very close since.
Geoff Kabaservice: It’s not something that’s much associated with either party now, fiscal responsibility, but it used to be strong on both sides. What was the legacy there? Because in some ways you are harkening back to an older tradition of liberalism that I think was more class-oriented as opposed to race and ethnic orientation, and was a little more no-nonsense not just in terms of people like Alice Rivlin but in terms of its approach to governance as well. And I wonder where that perspective came from.
Isabel Sawhill: I think one way to put that is that it used to be that our debates were more about economics and less about culture. And Alice and I used to talk about that. Alice would say, and I totally agreed with her, that you can find compromise along an economic spectrum — because it is a spectrum — more easily than you can on cultural issues. Because cultural issues tend to be zero-one issues and tend to be more emotionally intense; either you’re pro-life or you’re not pro-life. Whereas on taxes, you could be for a better tax system, and you could have some compromise between liberals and conservatives on what that might look like, because it wasn’t a zero-one decision. It was a decision along a spectrum.
And now conservatives seem to be really playing the culture card. Well, I’m not sure should even say “playing” the culture card. They played the culture card for a while for political reasons, but now I think they’re so into it that it’s really hard for them to move away from it. The old supply-side economics, the old neoliberalism, the old limited-government, cut taxes and reduce regulations — you don’t hear about that very much anymore. And to the extent it’s still there, it’s snuck in the back door, as I think it was in 2017. Trump went along with it, but it wasn’t his big idea.
Geoff Kabaservice: Agreed. In 1970, you became chair of the Department of Economics at Goucher College. Were you tempted to become an academic for the duration of your career?
Isabel Sawhill: Not very much. One of the things you have to remember is that, again, as a person who was committed to my marriage, I had to make compromises all the time with my husband, and he with me. And we did make compromises. I was offered many jobs, for example, as president of small liberal-arts colleges, or asked at least to interview for them; I don’t know whether I would’ve gotten them. But I was at one point in my life very much in demand for lots of leadership positions, but I wouldn’t take them or even interview for them because it would’ve required leaving my husband or having a commuting marriage. And he did become president of NYU, and I had an important job in Washington at the time, so we did commute for five years between Washington and New York, and we didn’t like it very much. But Washington to New York was easier than some other commutes would’ve been.
Geoff Kabaservice: So to skip through some of your later career, you went to the Urban Institute — one of the Great Society products — and eventually, as you say, after service in the Clinton administration ended up at Brookings. I thought of your book recently because there was frankly a somewhat horrifying set of poll results that came from a Wall Street Journal-NORC poll that I’m guessing you might have seen as well. It was published in the Wall Street Journal on March 27th under the title “America Pulls Back From Values That Once Defined It.”
And according to this Wall Street Journal-NORC poll, compared to 1998 the Americans surveyed who believe that patriotism is very important dropped from 70% in 1998 to 38% today. Those who believe religion is important dropped from 62% to 39%. Those who believe having children is very important dropped from 59% to 30%. Community involvement, from 47% to 27%. But money is very important — it grows from 31% to 43%. And these declines are sharpest particularly among young people compared to older people.
And there’s any number of other, again, rather bleak statistics that surfaced from these polls. For more than three decades this NORC organization has asked Americans whether life for their children’s generation will be better than it has been for their own, using its General Social Survey. And this year, 78% said they don’t feel confident that is the case, which is the highest share since the survey began asking the question in 1990.
So you had in your book, The Forgotten Americans, a second chapter entitled “What Went Wrong?” And I feel like maybe now the question is: What went wronger? But here we are in this rather bleak situation where a lot of Americans feel that the country’s best days are behind them, where they no longer believe in a lot of the values that seemed to define the country. I think this is actually something quite similar to your book’s asking for these people who feel left behind, depressed, and discouraged about the country, what can be done?
Isabel Sawhill: So first point I think is on the poll, on the attitudinal poll. I think, as you suggested, that is largely a generational effect. In other words, it’s one group being replaced by another, younger generations replacing older ones in the samples. I don’t know if it’s all that; I wouldn’t suspect it is all that, but I suspect it’s largely that. On what went wrong, definitely this whole question about achieving the American Dream and thinking that your children can do better than you can, the polls have said for a long time that people are increasingly pessimistic about that.
And that pessimism is grounded in reality. You probably are very familiar with Raj Chetty and his team’s work at Harvard on what’s happened to upward mobility since the 1950s. In my generation, your probability, your likelihood of doing better economically than your parents was about 90%. For people born in the 1980s, it was about 50%. And as you go down to younger generations, although we don’t have the data yet on their adult incomes, it’s probably lower still. And so upward mobility has definitely been going away. Now I think what’s really interesting that Raj Chetty also shows is that when you ask why has upward mobility declined so much, there are two reasons. One is less economic growth, less rapid economic growth. And the other is more inequality; growth is less broadly distributed. And the second factor is just as important or more important than the first.
Geoff Kabaservice: Which is part of what leads you to say that economic growth is not enough, although of course it is a desirable thing.
Isabel Sawhill: Right, right. One of the reasons people got ahead in the past is because they didn’t just ride the growth escalator up, they actually traded places with someone else on the escalator. In other words, their relative position in the income ranking went up more than it does now. There seems to be more stickiness now in terms of relative mobility relative to your parents.
Geoff Kabaservice: What are the other factors that have changed over time to make the American Dream more difficult to attain, particularly for those Americans without a college degree?
Isabel Sawhill: Well, I think it’s technology, it’s trade, and it’s an education and training system that is not well aligned with what a modern society and a modern economy demands. And I think it’s been all three, and there are probably other factors. I think those were the three I emphasized in the book.
Geoff Kabaservice: And by technology you largely meant automation?
Isabel Sawhill: Yes, but not just automation. As jobs get more skilled and sophisticated, they require more education. Let’s take Siemens — I talked about this in the book. They had a plant in Charlotte, North Carolina, and they had something like 800 openings, and these were just for skilled manufacturing jobs. They weren’t necessarily automated but they required more skills than what was required in the past. And there were thousands of people who applied, and only 15% of those who applied passed the tests in basic reading, math, and maybe a couple of other basic things to even get over the line to be considered for the jobs.
I could go on and on, and I do in the book with statistics about this. The military has found this. The military is finding that most young Americans today — I’m talking about 18-to-24 year-olds — are not qualified to join the military even if they wanted to. Now, the military isn’t that automated, but it is a lot more technologically sophisticated than it used to be.
Geoff Kabaservice: There also has been a breakdown of what you have famously called “the success sequence,” wherein you, the aspiring upwardly mobile American, graduate from school (high school or perhaps college), you work full-time, and then you get married before you have children. Tell me something about the work that led up to that particular formulation and finding.
Isabel Sawhill: There was a point when I was working with Ron Haskins — Ron Haskins and I co-directed the Center for Children and Families at Brookings. I had come from the Clinton administration and he had been in the Bush White House and also had been the senior staffer on Ways and Means when welfare reform was passed. He’s a psychologist and I’m an economist, but we teamed up and always worked together very productively. We got interested in this whole question of children’s trajectories and why some are successful and others aren’t. So I had my research assistant look at the data from the Current Population Survey from the Census and figure out what the correlates of upward mobility were. And those three really stood out. It was a pretty simple-minded analysis, but it spoke volumes.
It showed that if you did all the three things that you just described — graduate at least from high school, work full-time, and get married before you have children, or at least be in a committed long-term relationship — your chances of being poor plummeted from like 14% to 2%, and your chances of being middle-class or better rose to around 70% from something much lower. So we kept doing that with additional data, and then other people like Brad Wilcox got into the game and did more work using even better data. Then I even built a much more sophisticated model and controlled for a lot more variables and was still finding basically the same patterns. It’s a nice, simple story: Just do these three things and you’ll be successful. And there are now junior high schools who are very interested in this and who are teaching this to their students.
Geoff Kabaservice: So simple to say, yet harder and harder to follow in practice it would seem. What is responsible for that?
Isabel Sawhill: Well, that’s right. And of course many of my liberal friends and colleagues said, “Well, Belle, that’s very hard to do all those three things if you come from a poor family.” And that’s correct. So this brings up the whole question of what’s the responsibility of individuals versus the responsibility of society or government to help people on a positive trajectory? And I think it’s some of both, and I don’t have much patience for those who say it’s all one or all the other, because it seems to me they have to go hand-in-hand. You have to give people a helping hand and open doors, but you also have to expect them to walk through the doors when they’re there or take a hold of the hand when it’s there.
And so I think it’s a very mixed picture, and it varies from individual to individual, even from neighborhood to neighborhood. One of the reasons that Ron and I were good colleagues is because we both saw it as a more complex picture than people on either the far left or the far right.
Geoff Kabaservice: Something that’s quite interesting to me about the whole project around The Forgotten Americans is that you wrote this book based on this intense survey of the statistics and data. And then after having written it, you actually went out into the country and spoke to these forgotten Americans in a number of cities, and more or less reality-checked some of the conclusions you’d drawn in the book against the situation you found on the ground. Tell me about that experience.
Isabel Sawhill: I’m so glad you asked about that, because I did that after the book went to press and so I couldn’t get the results into the book. But I felt strongly that I needed to do that, that I was too much in my own bubble in Washington, D.C. — “inside the Beltway,” as they say — and that I was one of those intellectual elites that didn’t understand this so-called working class. I actually hired a firm to help me with this, to do it very professionally. And they recruited for me a group of people who fit the definition that I gave you at the beginning of this conversation about who the forgotten Americans were, and so none of them had college degrees. And we went to three cities: St. Louis; Greensboro, North Carolina; and Syracuse, New York. And I was fascinated because the people we talked to were so much more complicated than what you saw in a lot of the literature.
I’ll give you one interesting example. When we debate the minimum wage in Washington between liberals and conservatives, conservatives say they don’t like the minimum wage because it’s going to reduce hiring of the disadvantaged. And liberals say, “Well, without a higher minimum wage, employers are going to take advantage of workers and they’re just not going to have enough money to live on.”
Well, the forgotten Americans had mixed feelings about the minimum wage, but a lot of them didn’t like it even though they were making minimum wage or very close to it themselves. And so when we asked them, “Why don’t you like the minimum wage when your own wages are so low?,” here’s what they said, which I’d never thought about before. Many of them were middle-aged — let’s say they’re 40 or 50 years old — and they said, “Well, I’m making $16 an hour,” or “I’m making $13 an hour” — whatever they were making — “and I don’t want some kid who’s 18 or 19 or 20 years old coming on and making as much money as I do.” Isn’t that interesting?
Geoff Kabaservice: You cite Arlie Hochschild in your work, and she has surveyed Americans of this type who feel that others are “cutting in line” in front of them in some sense — that’s the phrase that they most often use. That’s what that sounds like.
Isabel Sawhill: I cited her work a lot in my book, and I loved her metaphor about people cutting in line. And she — and I think her husband as well — lived within a working-class, mostly white community, I think…
Geoff Kabaservice: In Louisiana.
Isabel Sawhill: In Louisiana for a year. And she finally got it, and she used that metaphor. People feel like they’re standing in line to get to the top of the mountain, and people like immigrants and minority groups and even women are cutting in line and not allowing them to get to the top. I think there’s really a lot of what behavioral economists call “loss aversion” going on there. This is a group that was used to being respected, used to being a little bit on top of the hierarchy at least in their own communities, and they feel displaced.
Geoff Kabaservice: We’d talked earlier about the concept of radical centrism, and I think the fact that you actually are approaching these working-class Americans who do overwhelmingly vote against your party with empathy and trying to understand is itself an act of radical moderation. The phrase “forgotten Americans,” in fact… I don’t know if this is exactly where you took it from, but certainly that is the phrase that Donald Trump used after his 2016 election win, to say that his was a great win for “the forgotten Americans,” the men and women who work in the factories and have been scorned and despised by the elites.
And I also think it’s true that the Democrats have had a problem with that group in recent years, not just in terms of them not voting for them, but in terms of not caring that much about them or accusing them of benefiting from “white privilege” and all the rest of it. So I wonder, again, if you are in some sense channeling an older New Deal-Democratic way of thinking about these problems that seems in a way both radical and conservative in the present circumstances.
Isabel Sawhill: First of all, I definitely got the title of the book from what Trump had said. Of course, as I point out in the book, even though he told them they would be forgotten no more, once he was elected he sure did forget about them; most of his policies were actually very inimical to their well-being. And even though I like to understand this group and respect them and do not want to demonize them in the kinds of ways you just suggested, I really also want to say that one of the reasons why it’s so hard to find compromise now is because this problem isn’t symmetrical. In my view, what’s happened to the Republican Party is very different than what’s happened to the Democratic Party. The Republican Party — and political scientists have shown this, and I know this is your more your field than mine — but they have shown that Republicans have moved much further right than Democrats have moved left. And granted the gap between them is larger than it’s ever been, but it’s not because of a symmetrical move.
Geoff Kabaservice: I actually do feel that asymmetric polarization used to be a bigger phenomenon a few years ago, but particularly after George Floyd’s murder Democrats have moved really far left on cultural issues — in a way that’s not equivalent to what the Republicans have done but is at least similar to it. And I found it interesting that in your book you actually wrote — this is 2018 — “It would seem that if they want to expand their bases, Republicans need to move left on economic issues and Democrats need to move right on cultural issues.” And, needless to say, that’s not what’s happened.
Isabel Sawhill:No. I actually agree with that. That was a great statement you just made. I agree with that.
Geoff Kabaservice: So tell us about the “GI Bill for Workers” that you proposed as a way of meliorating the situation of these forgotten Americans.
Isabel Sawhill: Well, going back to the success sequence for a moment, and also to mainstream American values… What I argue in the book is it’s all about education, work, and family, and the success sequence ties them together and says that’s the way to go. I wrote a book about the family back in 2014, and I wrote a book… In The Forgotten Americans, the focus was on work. And the work piece of it by the way, is very important in the empirical findings about the success sequence. If you work full-time, even at a low wage, you’re going to do pretty well. And if you have two earners in your family, you’re going to be especially helped. But I now need to write a book about education. And I had some stuff about education even in The Forgotten Americans, and I’ve certainly written papers and briefs about it, but I’m increasingly concerned about it.
And so the GI Bill was about adults and the fact that they need training and retraining, and we do a terrible job in the U.S. in providing training and retraining — not nearly as well as Europeans do. We don’t have apprenticeships to nearly the same extent. We haven’t really come up with very many successful programs for helping less-skilled workers or dislocated workers. And so I go into all of that and say we need to do better. But I think the other thing that I talk a little bit about in The Forgotten Americas, but which really needs a whole book, is the K-12 education system. Everything shows that we spend more on K-12 education than any other advanced country and our students are doing poorly on international tests. So something’s not working.
And if you ask me what’s not working, the biggest thing is we don’t pay teachers enough. Now, I want to give students more choice, and I want to hold teachers more accountable for performance, and I want to hold kids more accountable for performance. This goes back to the changing status of women in our society and the fact that, for historical reasons, the well-educated women didn’t have too many other occupations available to them and so they became teachers. And they’re still, I think, rather low-paid for what they do.
Geoff Kabaservice: Let me just mention the book that you mentioned in passing… Your 2014 book was Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage. And I believe you also helped to found what’s now known as Power to Decide, but which used to be known as the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
Isabel Sawhill: Wow, Geoff, you’ve done your homework. That’s exactly right.
Geoff Kabaservice: And it actually does seem that that has been a success in the American political picture, that in fact the rates of teen pregnancy have come down significantly.
Isabel Sawhill: Very significantly, about 70% according to the latest data as I best can recall. And we think that was a success, that campaign. We didn’t do it alone, of course, but we provided the leadership and got people in communities all around the country and in different sectors of our society involved in helping us. And now that abortion is going to be much less accessible, this whole emphasis on helping people only have children that they want to have is even more important. And that requires putting an emphasis on not having them too early, and only having them when you have a committed partner, and only having them when you feel ready to have them.
I was shocked by the data that was in that earlier 2014 book… If you look at single women under the age of 30 — and by the way, today, especially if you’re educated, you don’t get married much before age 30 — so if you’re looking at all single women below the age of 30, a majority of the pregnancies that they have are unplanned, unintended, unanticipated. And that’s not the best way to bring a child into the world. I do feel quite strongly about reducing not only teen pregnancy but also unplanned pregnancies amongst young single women who really don’t want to have a baby yet.
Geoff Kabaservice: Right. So you, in this GI Bill for American Workers, were proposing a handful of basic approaches for the left-behind. Number one, as you said, was more vocational education and adjustment assistance for workers who’ve been adversely affected by new developments in technology and trade, including a chance to retrain or relocate. You also called for a broad-based tax credit to bump up inadequate wages, a new role for the private sector in training and rewarding workers, a social insurance system focused on lifelong education and family care in addition to retirement. And then, I don’t know if it was part of this group, but definitely an emphasis on repairing the culture through national service.
Isabel Sawhill: Right. Great summary on your part. Let me mention the part about social insurance, because I think it was a new and interesting part of my agenda. I have gotten very interested not just in how much money people have but how much time they have. And in my very most recent book with Richard Reeves, A New Contract with the Middle Class, we talk a lot about what we call the time squeeze on the middle-class families. And basically you get to the midpoint of your life and you are taking care of kids still, and you may also be taking care of your elderly parents. You may need to adjust to the economy, which means you need some new training, and you can’t do it because you don’t have the time for it.
I want to add a new plank to the social insurance system — Social Security, basically — that says, “We are going to give you an account as part of the Social Security system that you can use in an approved training program to get retrained, or relocated, or start a new business in midlife.” And I’m going to keep this fiscally responsible by cutting back on programs for retirement, but I’m going to shift more resources to the younger generation and to the middle-aged working classes for these kinds of purposes, and also for family care, for paid leave. I thought that was kind of innovative and it hasn’t gotten much discussion. I could go on and on about each of these planks you just mentioned, and I’m happy to talk about any of the others, but I wanted to give that sone ome priority.
Geoff Kabaservice: I liked all of those proposals. And what struck me as interesting was that a number of them overlapped with the kinds of ideas that Oren Cass was putting forward at that time in a book that was often reviewed alongside yours, The Once and Future Worker. And yet, even though the Republicans have really tried to brand themselves as the party of the working class, and they are disproportionately getting the votes of those without college educations, they don’t seem to have any interest really in putting forward policies along these lines to help their base, who could use this help. Do you see that changing anytime soon?
Isabel Sawhill: I don’t see it changing. But you’re exactly right about what you just said. And it goes back to what I said earlier, that conservatives have the right value messages but the wrong policies, and Democrats have the reverse. Oren Cass and I were part of a Brookings-AEI working group on the working class, and we talked extensively about this tax credit for low-wage workers, and we pretty much agreed about it. We definitely agreed on the value of the proposal; I think what we disagreed about was how to pay for it. But we were pretty close, and we had that proposal in the report that Brookings and AEI put out about the working class. In intellectual circles, there’s plenty of room for compromise and agreement. The problem is when you get to the politics of the current Congress, and that’s where things are stuck.
Geoff Kabaservice: I am definitely doing a little bit of both-sides-ing here, but I did notice that in your book you warned of the possibility that Democrats would “overplay their hand,” as you put it, “pleasing their base but neglecting the moderate but quiet middle that wants stability, pragmatism, and dignity in public life, not a new swerve to the left.” That was rather prophetic, I’m afraid.
Isabel Sawhill: Yes, I did say that, and I still agree with it.
Geoff Kabaservice: So since you’d mentioned the Richard Reeves book, A New Contract with the Middle Class, the five core ingredients you identified for a good quality of life for the middle class — well, really for all people — were money, time, relationships, health, and respect. How did you and Richard come up with those five?
Isabel Sawhill: Again, it was really a matter of having lots of conversation, and we both believe pretty strongly that this is not all about economics. In other words, the well-being of the middle class is not all about economics. Economics is a piece of it — material goods matter and having enough income to support a family matters — and we wanted to do something about that. But we were also concerned that that’s not the only way to have a flourishing life. You do need time for other things besides going to work. You especially need time for your family. And secondly, you do need relationships. Relationships are not only critical to your general sense of well-being, but they’re even critical to your health. I’ve been really struck by how strong the research on that is. People who are lonely or depressed or whatever, they have terrible health problems.
So we’re both concerned about relationships, very concerned. We even wanted to make it the first chapter in the book. And some of our critics said, “No, no, you’ve got to start with the economics.” And so we gave in to that. But health is obvious, and Richard is very big on the problem of obesity in our society and how it contributes to poor health. And also he’s very big — both of us were — on the importance of mental health. So we said, “Let’s tax sugary beverages.” We weren’t optimistic that that would happen politically, but we thought, “Well, what are we here for except to put out ideas like that and argue for them?” And on mental health, we wanted everybody to have access to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. In the UK, where Richard is from, as you know, they do have access for free counseling through something like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
And then the respect chapter was really something he was very strong on, and it was his way of saying, “We need to live in a pluralist society. And in a pluralist society — and we are of course a very, very diverse society — you have to respect other groups and other people.” I think that was the better way, the more positive way to talk about that, instead of just saying, “We have a lot of problems with prejudice against various groups and structural racism and structural sexism and all that.” And just saying “We need to respect groups” was a more positive message, I think — respecting the white working class, for example.
Geoff Kabaservice: I noticed the book you did with Richard in a sense previewed some of the themes in his book Of Boys and Men, in particular the emphasis on getting more men into what you called the HEAL professions.
Isabel Sawhill: Right. Yes, we wrote an article for the New York Times something like five or six or seven years ago about all of this, and we talked about HEAL jobs and some of the other themes that are in his new book — which is a wonderful book. I want to give it a big shout-out. It’s very readable, it’s very new, it’s very fresh, it’s very well researched, it’s got great data in it. I have to say that I have huge respect for what he’s done, and I agree with a great deal of it.
But I do think he is talking about a very thin slice in time — just the last few decades — in a thin slice of geography — basically the U.S. or other advanced western countries. If you looked at all of history and you looked at the entire globe, you wouldn’t find that men were struggling. You would find it was women who were struggling, and they’re still struggling in places like Afghanistan. Yes, they’ve overcome men on the education front in the U.S. and some other advanced countries, but in some other countries they’re not even allowed to go to school and they’re not even allowed to dress in certain ways. So I could go on and on about why I think there’s still a problem for women. But I think what was fresh and new and really well done by Richard was to point out that we have gotten too much in the habit of saying this is all about women, when it’s also about men.
Geoff Kabaservice: I actually had Richard on my podcast the week that his book came out, which is one of the many benefits of having Ted Gayer, the former executive vice president of Brookings, become the president of the Niskanen Center. I wanted to talk about one more article that you’d published relatively recently in Democracy Journal called “Saving Democracy.” And this struck me because in a way you’re writing about the threats to our democracy, and these were related to but not quite the same as most of the themes you’ve written about throughout your career. But I found it a fascinating article, and I particularly I think empathized with what you call “the three foundational truths” which are important to understand as we’re talking about our present imperiled democratic moment here in the United States.
First, you said “human nature is flawed, and we humans are especially vulnerable to myopia, to emotionally satisfying but irrational beliefs, and to loyalty to our own tribe.” Second, “an increasingly complex and technologically advanced society offers huge opportunities for progress against poverty, disease, environmental catastrophe, and the horrors of war, but it also poses near-existential threats to our well-being and ultimate survival.” And third, “this combination of human frailties and the risks and opportunities posed by new technologies requires stronger, not weaker, collective institutions — and above all, a well-functioning democracy.” And you had a great quote by the biologist E. O. Wilson who said, “We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.”
Isabel Sawhill: That was a great summary. Thank you for bringing it up.
Geoff Kabaservice: We’re actually in this situation where in some sense democracy is precisely what’s got us into this situation; where we’re actually having a threat to our democracy from perhaps excessive democracy, or the wrong kind of democracy, or democracy that isn’t formed by expertise and perspective.
Isabel Sawhill: I’m very, very concerned about our democracy, along with many other people of course. And right now, as we speak today, former President Trump is appearing at the courthouse in New York for his arraignment. And I’ve been shocked that 62% of the American public think that this arraignment or this charge is political. And the reason I find that so disturbing is because we all like to talk about the rule of law, on both sides of the aisle. We are usually quite respectful of the rule of law, that it should be adhered to. No one is above the law, even a president or a former president of the United States. And what I fear is happening now is that that norm — to respect the law — may be disappearing. And it’s disappearing because Trump and his ilk are so disrespectful of it and have done such an unfortunately good job of undermining it. But once we don’t have that norm anymore, we are in deep, deep trouble. Sorry to get on my soapbox about that, but that’s very concerning to me.
Geoff Kabaservice: One of the things you’re calling for as a way of getting our democracy back on track is to do a better job of preparing citizens for the tasks of democratic governance, which would seem to fit in with your concern about our inadequate educational system as well.
Isabel Sawhill: Yes. I think that voters are not very well-educated and informed, and to some extent that’s because — why would they be? They’re too busy to study these issues the way you and I do, and they therefore make fairly superficial decisions and are easily riled up. That is the paleolithic brain piece of the E. O. Wilson quote. It’s also something that I think Jon Haidt talks about very wonderfully, and I used his metaphor a lot in this most recent article, which is that we are like a rider on an elephant. We think we’re in control of the elephant…
Geoff Kabaservice: The elephant in this case representing the unconscious…
Isabel Sawhill: And the elephant is our emotions and our unconscious passions. And we don’t realize that it’s the elephant that is so often in control. But anyway, without going on and on about that, I think this is a very important insight and that we need institutions as guardrails and as governing mechanisms for our frailties and our often irrational behavior. And we don’t have very strong institutions right now. Democracy is the one that seems most in trouble right now and the most important right now.
Geoff Kabaservice: I must ask, Belle… Many of your contemporaries are content to play cards and perhaps have a few drinks by the pool, and yet you seem to be more productive than ever. Why is that?
Isabel Sawhill: Well, you’re kind to say that, because I am not as productive as I used to be. But you’re right that I am not content to just sit by a pool and drink a gin and tonic. For the same reason that when I was young I was not content to just be a good wife and mother, I’m not content now to be just your ordinary canasta-playing elderly person. I don’t know why, but it’s just I guess who I am. And I hope that I haven’t gotten too feeble-minded in my old age to keep doing something or other.
Geoff Kabaservice: Evidently not.
Isabel Sawhill: This whole conversation has been hugely fun, so thank you for that.
Geoff Kabaservice: Great! And I’ve enjoyed it as well. I guess there’s a final question then… We’ve seen Richard’s statistics about the deteriorating situation of boys and men in this country, but at the same time the CDC recently came out with a rather horrifying set of statistics about mental problems plaguing young women in this country. And you overcame a lot of obstacles in your own career, and it is interesting that at a time when seemingly young women are achieving more than ever before, and fewer obstacles are in front of them than at any point in our history for the most part, they’re feeling so overwhelmed and hopeless. What kind of advice would you give, or do you give, to young women whom you encounter?
Isabel Sawhill: Well, first of all, they rarely ask me, which is interesting in and of itself. But I think I would counsel them to have enough self-confidence in themselves to walk through more doors and to speak up and to get the kind of education and experience that they’re going to need if they’re ambitious. Society isn’t going to hand it to them on a silver platter. And I don’t think most of them think that; I don’t want to be misunderstood here. I would say that the kind of research assistants and analysts that we get at Brookings — many of whom are women, by the way; Brookings is doing great on the proportion of our staff that is female and also the proportion of our staff that are people of color. I’m proud of that and proud of the diversity that we’ve achieved just in the last five to seven years. But those women at Brookings are doing great, most of them. So I think we can’t generalize too much. But you’re right, there are a lot of teenagers who are having huge problems. I think a lot of it, as Jonathan Haidt again argues, is due to social media, and that’s been a negative influence in most of our lives.
Geoff Kabaservice: And maybe as an actual final question, do you feel more optimistic or pessimistic about the fate of the American experiment going forward?
Isabel Sawhill: Right now it’s hard to be optimistic. But I realize that historically we’ve gone through a lot of tough periods. And you have more of a background in history than I do, so you could probably talk about this more cogently than I can. But obviously we had a Civil War, we had the civil rights revolution, we had Watergate, we had Vietnam. It’s not always been easy sledding, and we seem to have held together in the past. That said, one of the books that I read that scared me the most recently — and I don’t know if you’ve had him on your podcast — was David French’s book, in which he actually talks about a possible civil war. And he has two scenarios: one begins in California over guns, and the other one begins in Texas over abortion. And they are fascinatingly realistic scenarios, and they give you a lot to think about that’s kind of scary.
Geoff Kabaservice: Scary times. But I am so grateful for your work and for your joining me here today. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you, Isabel Sawhill.
Isabel Sawhill: Well, thank you ever so much, Geoff. I enjoyed it enormously.
Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. And if you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating or send us an email at email@example.com. Thanks as always to our technical director, Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer, Ray Ingenieri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.