Rethinking Poverty in America

According to the official poverty measure, being poor means having very little cash income — for a parent with two children, less than $18,499, according to the latest Census Bureau thresholds.

For the Supplemental Poverty Measure, being poor means not having enough cash income and certain near-cash benefits like refundable tax credits and food stamps to pay for everyday basic needs, plus some other necessary expenses, e.g., medical out-of-pockets.

Those of a liberal persuasion, including yours truly, often cite analyses in the annual SPM reports as evidence that our anti-poverty programs work.

A recently-published study by some Columbia University professors was heralded because, by using a slightly modified SPM, they were able to show that major safety net programs reduced the poverty rate by 40% between 1967, shortly after the War on Poverty was launched, and 2012.

This isn’t going to make one whit of difference to the right-wingers who are fond of recycling former President Reagan’s (in)famous “We fought a war on poverty, and poverty won.”

On the other hand, we do have 16% of the population — 49.7 million people — in poverty, according to the SPM. And this isn’t because we gave up on the anti-poverty enterprise, though surely “welfare reform,” harsh anti-drug laws and diverse other policies help explain it.

Professor Mark Rank at Washington University in St. Louis argues that economist John Galbraith put his finger on the problem 30 years ago, when he said we were attacking poverty from the wrong end.

Instead of beginning with root causes, he says, we begin with preferred remedies and tailor our view of the causes to fit.

More generally, we begin with a fondness for our free enterprise system and the American Dream, which promises a reasonably comfortable lifestyle to anyone who works hard and plays by the rules.

Working backwards, we locate both the causes and solutions to poverty in the individual. For conservatives, this means finding character flaws, e.g., a propensity to laziness, imprudent choices like having children out of wedlock, indulging in alcohol and/or drugs.

So safety net programs are badly structured because … well, because they provide a safety net. So there are no bad consequences for bad behaviors. Indeed, some have long argued that the programs reward bad behaviors.

Liberals focus more on inadequacies that disadvantage individuals in the labor market — lack of education, training and thus of in-demand skills. So we have a variety of programs to level the playing field — for those who’ll exercise personal responsibility.

In either case, Rank says, “the poor are by and large at fault for their poverty,” though we make an exception for those unable to work for reasons that have nothing to do with their behavior.

And we as a society feel limited responsibilities for poor people because it’s up to them to take advantage of such opportunities as we offer. We tinker with the incentives and disincentives. We don’t doubt what Rank, like a true academic, calls the “paradigm” that underpins the remedies.

He calls for a new paradigm, based on “realities,” rather than “the myths of America.” It’s got five components — none of which, he acknowledges, is altogether new.

The first seems to me in some ways the most important because it speaks directly to the role of public policies. We need to recognize, Rank says, that poverty in America is largely the result of “structural failings.”

The most obvious of these is that there simply aren’t enough decent-paying jobs for the number of workers who need them. Indeed, there aren’t enough jobs, period. And there haven’t been even when the economy was booming along, according to research Rank cites.

At the same time, our social safety net is “extremely weak.” By way of contrast, we’re asked to consider the range and reach of income supports and publicly-funded insurance programs that are common in Europe, e.g., child or family allowances, expansive child care, universal health coverage.

Put the two together and you’ve got widespread deprivation — Rank’s preferred concept of poverty (and mine).

He asks us to think of a game of musical chairs. As you know, there are always fewer chairs than players. Those most likely not to get a seat have some disadvantage. In the game itself, that tends to be pushiness, as I unhappily recall.

In the economy, it’s lack of education and/or marketable skills. We focus on these, Rank says, when we should ask “why the game produces losers to begin with.” In other words, why aren’t there enough “viable economic opportunities and social supports” for everyone?

Rank is hardly the only one to call for a refocused approach to poverty in this country. Many progressives have, in various ways, urged us fellow travelers to shift our attention to structural economic reforms.

They’re pushing back against what Rortybomb blogger Mike Konczal refers to as “pity-charity liberal capitalism” — a doubling-down on “welfare” at the expense of policies that would empower workers, both in the workplace and the in political sphere.

At the same time, we do need those safety net and social insurance programs. They’re under such heavy attacks from the right these days that we’re forced into a defensive posture.

We should acknowledge, however, that the challenge ahead is not only to preserve what works, but  change what doesn’t — or does, but not as well as it should, including our economy.

I expect we’ll be hearing a lot about this in the days to come because we’re about to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty.

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2 Responses to Rethinking Poverty in America

  1. nilknarf1940 says:

    Reblogged this on TMO Alief and commented:
    This is a very good article that deals with a very complex issue. You may not agree with the conclusions but it creates a better scenario for a conversation

  2. Utter nonsense to say that the US “fought a war on poverty.”
    Even in the late 60s that money designated for the war on poverty was diverted-wait for it-to fight the Vietnam war. NIxon began dismantling the programs in 1972.
    By the time Raygun was elected in 1980, it was allover.
    The only reason this is appearing on anyone’s radar screen is it is starting to afffect the non minority community.
    Oh gee, now we have a problem. Better late than never, I guess.

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