Fifty years after President Lyndon Johnson launched the “War on Poverty” during his first State of the Union address, President Barack Obama is widely expected to revisit that theme in Tuesday night’s address with a major focus on income inequality.

The issue is one Democrats are calculating will be a winning one for them in November, and there is at some evidence to support that view. Polling released Friday by USA Today and the Pew Research Center found 63 percent of Americans extending federal benefits for the long-term unemployed, while 73 percent support raising the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10.

The Senate recently voted for cloture to extend unemployment benefits for 1.3 million who lost them at the end of 2013, but a deal to move to vote on that package broke down, and the odds a similar bill passes the Republican-controlled House are slim. When it comes to raising the minimum wage, conservatives have stuck to an even harder line. Even if the GOP is able to avoid electoral consequences for what the polls currently suggest are unpopular stances, the party’s failure to put forward an alternative to these sorts of policies helps reinforce the impression that conservatives don’t care about the poor.

It is a failure of policy-making that the debate over poverty and unemployment has hit this point. In the throes of the crisis, a benefits extension was a quick, easy, and smart way to deal with growing joblessness. However, absent other pro-work incentives, continuing such extensions, or raising the cost to employers by raising the minimum wage, are simply not wise long-term policy choices.

Thankfully, some Republicans are now stepping forward with new plans to address the issue that focus on incentives to work and enticements to form and maintain stable families. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), has put forward a plan to significantly increase the child tax credit. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has offered plans to block grant aid to the states and to restructure the Earned Income Tax Credit as a periodic wage subsidy.

Another approach is to encourage the unemployed to relocate for work by allowing them to cash out a portion of their benefits to offset moving expenses. Traditionally, America has been an incredibly mobile society, with 3.5 percent of the population moving annually when record keeping began in the 1950s. But since 1980, the proportion of Americans moving for opportunity has declined dramatically. Over the last few years, it has declined to less than 2 percent. There is some evidence this is leading to a spatial mismatch between the ranks of the unemployed and underemployed, and jobs that could actually utilize their skills.

Numerous factors are to blame for Americans’ new-found lack of willingness to move in search of opportunity. One of the leading reasons appears to be the rising cost of living in the country’s more productive areas. Restrictions on the size and cost of housing has turned areas like New York, Washington and San Francisco into bubbles, keeping the wealthy in but the rest out. In just one example cited in a recent article in Washington Monthly, Los Angeles is experiencing significant out-migration to neighboring San Bernardino, despite the latter having higher unemployment and higher crime. The reason most commonly cited for the move: lower housing costs.

But the welfare state also provides powerful incentives to stay put. State-based relief – ranging from food stamps to Medicaid – has the unfortunate side effect of decreasing mobility, given that moving to a new location often requires signing up again under different rules. This problem is even more acute with housing assistance programs like Section 8, which typically have long waiting lists to qualify.

Obviously the aim of taking work in a new location is to no longer need such benefits, but for some, dealing with the potential for even a temporary loss could be too risky. These programs may have kept the poverty rate from rising, but they certainly haven’t been moving large numbers of individuals into better opportunities.

In addition, just as we’ve poured money into failing schools for little gain, the federal government has poured money into failing cities through Empowerment Zones and other programs aimed at attracting jobs and investment to specific depressed areas. Most studies have found these zones to be terrible failures, doing little to alleviate poverty and often bringing in mechanized jobs rather than opportunity for locals.

All of this is particularly troubling, given the recent Harvard study demonstrating the lack of income mobility for individuals born into certain areas. Completely counter-intuitive to Americans’ perceptions of themselves, it would appear that, more than ever in recent history, our American cake is baked, with communities continuing along their upward or downward trajectories, wages stagnating, and too many children becoming casualties of their home zip codes.

There’s reason to believe a well-structured relocation voucher could be successful, though only partial, response to these challenges. In a limited experiment in the 1970s, unemployment offices in the South offered such assistance, as well as help in finding work in other states. The program worked particularly well for the young, the less educated and African-American males, the demographics most likely to live in areas with low social capital, as well as most likely to drop out of the labor force.

Allowing individuals to “cash out” a portion of their expected future unemployment benefits could even save money, as it offers hope of returning individuals to becoming contributors to the tax rolls, rather than benefit recipients. Additionally, firms will benefit from a larger pool of appropriate workers, and those individuals who self-select to move will be rewarded with better opportunities, while those who stay behind will have less competition for local jobs.

Beyond the fiscal benefits, however, there is a huge human upside as well. Simply put, alienation from the workforce has a huge emotional and mental toll. Work is one of the defining characteristics for most Americans, allowing them to express their ingenuity, to support their families, and to contribute to their communities. And access to work and opportunity both fulfills the American dream and keeps it alive, creating a binding moral fiber that helps make America exceptional.

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