Humanity Forward Looks For Bipartisan Progress on Family Issues — Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity

As the current session of Congress enters the final sprint toward Election Day, anti-poverty advocates hope to fan the embers of bipartisan cooperation on relief for working families into full-fledged cooperation. Humanity Forward is one of the leaders of that effort, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that hopes to bring Republicans and Democrats together on a pro-family agenda through what they call, “lobbying for the people.” Spotlight spoke with Paolo Mastrangelo, Humanity Forward’s head of policy and government affairs, about the outlook for anti-poverty policy in a new Congress and the near-term goals for his organization. The transcript of that conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why don’t we start with just a general overview of Humanity Forward?

Humanity Forward is a bipartisan nonprofit (501c3 and 501c4) focused on working with members of Congress and aligned stakeholders on advancing policies that strengthen American families and communities. We started just a couple of years ago as an organization that was focused on helping families get direct relief during the series of COVID bills. We helped introduce the first bipartisan bill on direct checks (which got swept into the larger COVID bill), and also worked on the expanded Child Tax Credit. While that’s how we started as an anti-poverty organization-we’ve since expanded on the original vision and now seek to provide serious lobbying firepower for a number of issues on behalf of the American people.

And to stop you for a moment, that’s with a nonpartisan frame, correct?

That’s right-or I should say, bipartisan rather than nonpartisan. With those early COVID bills, working in a bipartisan way opened us up to see a bigger opportunity and something missing in this ecosystem of mission-driven organizations. So, we started broadening out to focus on building an explicitly bipartisan organization that could work broadly on mission-driven issues that would help families in general.

All that happened for a couple of reasons. First, we didn’t start with many institutional funders, which was a factor in enabling our growth and keeping us nimble. Also, by way of background, I used to work at Holland & Knight and spent the last 10 years doing corporate lobbying. I wanted to continue doing lobbying but wanted to do something that was more impact- and mission-driven, and to bring the effective tools of corporate lobbying to use on behalf of altruistic issues.

So, when I came to Humanity Forward, I brought that skill set and approach to lobbying with me. While we were working on the Child Tax Credit’s expansion and extension with a lot of other advocates, we just started strategically focusing on talking to Republicans and creating a bipartisan pathway for the CTC-and in reading the tea leaves, we realized reconciliation was dead. That was really eye-opening for us as an organization. We started seeing that there were a lot of members of Congress and staff that wanted to work on these issues (and others) in a less dogmatic way, to get past some of the partisanship, and to think more long-term about creating durable policy in the poverty reduction space.

That was a light-bulb moment, and it led us to think that in the constellation of nonprofits in D.C.-and this is a crude simplification-there are lots of single-issue organizations, think tanks, and partisan organizations. But there are not many nonprofits that are just really proactively bipartisan. So, we thought, why don’t we lean into that model and start building the infrastructure to be able to work on a lot of issues, starting in that financial security space, and seeing where it goes? We’re in a good place now in terms of our funding where we have a long enough runway to spend a few years here to develop this model in other areas. Primarily, we’ll be continuing our focus on family policy-certainly the Child Tax Credit but also paid leave or EITC reform, things like that.

In the long term, we have a couple of different visions. On the one hand, we want to operate almost like a mission-driven lobbying firm where we can work on issues and be somebody that’s trusted by different partners. We also want to work directly with members of Congress-helping them succeed in their own legislative goals (when they are aligned with helping American families). Our brand on the Hill has been to really be as undogmatic as possible in order to help unlock these opportunities. This led to working with the (Utah Sen. Mitt) Romney team on their new iteration of the FSA (Family Security Act) plan, for example. We’re now also working with the Senate gang focused on the bipartisan Electoral Count Act, led by Sens. (Susan) Collins (R-Maine) and (Joe) Manchin (D-W.Va.). We want to replicate this model in other ways and on other issues over time. For example, next Congress, if there are members that are interested in immigration reform or climate/energy-to name a couple-hopefully they see us as an unconflicted entity that can help them achieve their own goals and force-multiply their chances of success.

Ultimately, we want to give a good name to lobbying for the people- something like a Chamber of Commerce or Business Roundtable for families.

Where do you think this seeming resurgence in interest in family policy and anti-poverty policy on the right is coming from? Is it a reaction to Trump? A reaction to the Dobbs decision?

It’s such a fascinating question. For one thing, on the Democratic side, I think the experience of trying to push the Build Back Better legislation brought to the surface the simmering misgivings of centrists about spending, as well as the true dimensions of the ambitious goals of many on the left. And that’s led to more discussions about how to move forward in a more incremental or pragmatic way, rather than saying, we want all or nothing, especially given the likelihood of a divided government in the next Congress.

It seems harder and harder to argue that these kinds of policies don’t work. You can certainly have debates about whether there’s a better way to do them, how they should be paid for, whether there should be work requirements, etc. But one of the lasting repercussions of the pandemic is that the evidence is pretty irrefutable on the impact.

On the Republican side-and we’ve done hundreds of meetings on the House and Senate sides and continue to do them-there’s always been a policy and philosophical interest in the Child Tax Credit, but only after it was uncoupled from the reconciliation process did we see more active involvement at the staff level. Once reconciliation was dead, we saw an almost immediate uptick in Republicans in Congress and conservative stakeholders trying to figure out what to do with this. The Dobbs decision could also have contributed to the speeding up and realignment of Republican factions-(Florida Sen. Marco) Rubio, (Utah Sen. Mike) Lee, the American Compass folks, and the faith community-to reclaim this issue as their own.

What besides the Child Tax Credit are your major goals for next year? And I’m sure that which way the House goes will be a major factor.

Nationally, we’re also seeing an increase in Republican governors contacting us and others to ask for best practices on how to deliver direct relief to people. The tenor of the messaging around this type of government intervention (which includes the original CTC expansion) has started to really shift. And tying this shift to “family policy” is the next step, to your question. We’ve heard from several Republicans on the Hill that this kind of family policy is almost guaranteed to be the main pillar of their work in Congress, and likely of somebody’s campaign for president in 2024, whether it’s (Florida Gov. Ron) DeSantis, Trump, or (South Carolina Sen.) Tim Scott, for example.

Totally. And we see that in our discussions with Republicans, who six months ago was having a hard time getting their members to agree on just the facts. Now, to your point, they don’t seem to have an “evidence problem” anymore. It is just more of a dynamic of Republicans not wanting to label these kinds of policies as only “anti-poverty.” This “work” versus “poverty” message dynamic might culturally shift in a few generations, which is longer than many of us would want, but it’s an important reality. Helping members on both sides get past this messaging dichotomy would help open up pathways for bipartisanship.

And is this work primarily in red states or also in some purple states?

The goal is to create bipartisan family policy discussions; how can we build a table and the political will for family policy to happen, whether it’s on the Child Tax Credit, a Romney-esque FSA, paid family leave, or other issues. Honestly, I think regardless of what happens in November, the dynamics are going to be similar enough to where we’re going to need to do something to build up center/right support and policy work in the House, and then something to help set up a bipartisan gang or group in the Senate and get them to work together. The sweet spot will be the Venn Diagram of what the conservatives in the House can support that also has a chance of getting brokered by a bipartisan group in the Senate.

And so, you can foresee a world in which you have a Republican House and (House Minority Leader) Kevin McCarthy is the Speaker and things can still get passed on these issues?

Helping set that table in Congress will be the driving force of what we’re doing, while also continuing with the public affairs and grasstops, state-based education work on these policies in different key states. We’re in maybe 10 to 15 key states really doing bread and butter work to educate folks on the ground about these policies and why they should be bipartisan. We’re not doing TV ads or digital ads; we’re just trying to find ways to generate organic support in these different states for these policies. If it’s not organic and doesn’t reflect the state, it has a much lower likelihood of helping members of Congress to see the policy and political benefits.

Some purple states-especially those with split (bipartisan) Senate delegations. We’ve been in West Virginia, and Arizona has been a heavy focus of our attention, for example.

Absolutely. First, there’s a growing set of conservative groups getting actively involved in these policy discussions. I don’t want to downplay how difficult it’s going to be for Republicans to really grapple with how to get this stuff done. I think the challenging part won’t be getting conservative members to agree these policies are needed-it will be on how we pay for this and at what cost. That debate hasn’t really started yet. We’re in the first phase now, where conservatives are testing policy ideas and seeing which elements start to stick and create the more durable coalitions in their own conference, without yet having to couple that with negotiations with Democrats.

Second, we’ve definitely seen a loosening of traditionally progressive groups that were more reticent to work with Republicans and are now starting to find ways to talk to them. I think from a strategic perspective, it seems like a lot of these groups on the left are coming to terms with how they can best situate themselves in the new Congress and on the heels of the reconciliation process. Part of the work is talking to Republicans and being honest brokers. The other half, perhaps in some ways the more critical role, is actually working to provide cover to progressive Members as the bipartisan table is being set. The traditional progressive champions need to hear from progressive groups saying, “the water’s warm, please negotiate.”

Paolo Mastrangelo

Originally published at https://spotlightonpoverty.org on August 31, 2022.

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Humanity Forward

Humanity Forward

We advance bipartisan policy solutions on behalf of our families, communities, and economy