05/30/2012 05:56 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2012

Policymakers Can Help Low-Income Families and Score Political Points

In the current polarized political environment, many people assume that more government intervention equals more spending which in turn leads to an ever-expanding federal deficit. This assumption has infiltrated debates over the federal budget and contributed to legislative gridlock.

But let us imagine an alternative scenario where members of Congress could improve government programs that grow our economy and support struggling families without adding to the federal deficit or jeopardizing their political standing. Wouldn't they all be lining up to cast their "yea" votes?

My organization, the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED), has identified 20 inexpensive policies that would allow our representatives in Washington to pull off this seemingly impossible feat. We call them "stroke of the pen" policies because they are easy to implement and cost little or nothing. Each policy is a political winner, offering a concrete and positive step forward in a nation hungry for good news about what government leaders are doing to improve the lives of ordinary Americans.

We identified these policies according to how meaningful they are to vulnerable families; how moveable they are in the current climate considering factors such as cost and political will; and whether they seem manageable when it comes to actual implementation. Each supports families by giving them the tools they need to build a financial cushion and create long-term economic opportunity. Here are a few examples:

  • Enact no-cost legislation to curb foreclosures through mandatory mediation. Congress should enact legislation requiring in-person mediation between lenders and homeowners prior to eviction and sale of a home in foreclosure. Mediation programs are inexpensive because they rely on existing systems, such as local courts. They require officials to simply add a step to their management of the foreclosure process rather than costly additional interventions.
  • Build credit through your phone bill. As many as 70 million Americans face the risk of not being able to find a place to live or work simply because they lack credit scores. Including telecommunications payment history in credit files is a straightforward solution that would enhance credit access for millions of households. Congress should pass legislation that allows telecommunications companies to report all payment history to the "big three" consumer credit bureaus. Such legislation would provide a no-cost solution to a problem that currently limits financial options for millions of families.
  • Integrate saving and asset-building initiatives into programs aimed at low-income families. Adding initiatives such as financial education, access to mainstream banking products and services, and credit and debt management into existing public social service programs will help more families move out of poverty. For example, strategies could be put in place to improve the financial literacy of Head Start parents and teachers, with a focus on saving for their children's education. These actions do not require new legislation and can be implemented directly by the responsible agency.
  • Eliminate or reform public benefits programs that place a limit on family assets. Asset limits are a relic of entitlement policies, many of which no longer exist. Personal savings and assets are precisely the kind of resources that allow families to move off public benefit programs and should be embraced. For little or no cost, Congress can eliminate asset limits or significantly raise the savings threshold in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Supplemental Social Security Insurance programs, no longer penalizing families who save to buy a home, invest in a child's education or start a business.

These policy changes alone will never substitute for greater investment in programs that address systemic income and wealth inequality in our nation. But they are a practical step forward with the potential to help millions of vulnerable families achieve economic stability - while allowing policymakers to score political points.