Let’s Recall Poverty Before the Safety Net

January 16, 2012

Huffington Post blogger Dan Morgan looks back nearly 50 years to tell us what poverty was like in his early reporting days.

This is an important, timely post because it reminds us of how poor people lived — and died — before the creation of today’s safety net.

Here in the District of Columbia, Morgan found “people living in basement apartments with dirt floors. Many were hungry, cold and short of coal for stoves. Some children were staying home because they had no shoes.”

Found a penniless woman with no coat to brave the cold weather for a trip to the social service agency. A blind man who made the trip, but was living with his nine children in an unheated place because the agency wouldn’t — or couldn’t — help him buy fuel.

In California, Morgan met a family that had lost three babies to dehydration while picking cotton there in 1936.

Still dreadful conditions 20 years later, he writes, when Michael Harrington chronicled farm worker poverty in that agriculture-rich state.

Morgan cites some evidence that safety net programs have lifted Americans out of poverty.

For example, the official poverty rate for seniors dropped from 28.5% in 1966 to 9% in 2010, at least partly because the federal government started indexing Social Security retirement benefits to cost-of-living increases.

Two other examples based on the Census Bureau’s supplemental poverty measure. You can see them in this nice infographic from the Half in Ten campaign.

But Morgan’s main point is that safety net programs have changed the quality of poverty.

In other words, poor people, by and large, don’t suffer the same acute, life-threatening deprivations as they did before we began building the network of programs that make up today’s safety net.

Morgan focuses on what may be our biggest success — federal nutrition assistance programs.

“Clinical malnutrition,” he writes, “has given way to what government and private agencies call ‘food insecurity.'”

“Poor nutrition, not malnutrition is the biggest problem” now, says anti-hunger expert and advocate Joel Berg.

And indeed, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2010 figures, children in only 1% of American households sometimes didn’t get enough to eat because their parents couldn’t afford to feed them.

WIC alone, Berg estimates, has prevented 200,000 babies from dying at birth.

“Progressives,” Morgan concludes, “should not be timid about extolling this achievement. And conservatives, above all, should welcome it” because safety net programs “enable millions more people to participate in the great American market,” e.g., by using food stamps to buy groceries, vouchers to pay rent to private landlords.

Many conservatives do appreciate the safety net, Morgan says. But, even by his own showing, many don’t.

For example, he quotes Newt Gingrich, whose latest tome notes that the 2009 poverty rate was about the same as when the War on Poverty began. “What did we get in return?” Newt asks — a rhetorical question if ever there was one.

We hear the same thing from the Republican Study Committee, which counts a large majority of House Republicans as members.

“Americans have spent around $16 trillion on means-tested welfare,”* it says. “Even with all these resources devoted to assistance for the poor, poverty is higher today than it was in the 1970s.”

This is the send-up for its broad-gauge attack on virtually the whole range of federal programs that constitute the safety net.

And RSC member Paul Ryan, who chairs the influential House Budget Committee, has personally championed radical safety net cuts.

As we head into the Fiscal Year 2013 budget season, both the administration and Congress will be looking for ways to reduce non-defense spending by $54.7 billion.

“The safety net will be a fat target,” Morgan warns.

Some major programs won’t get hit by the automatic cuts the failure of the Super Committee will trigger. But that doesn’t mean they’re safe, since Congress is perfectly free to change them — or the law that partly protects them.

Other programs are wide open, as the Congressional committees and subcommittees parcel out the mandated reductions.

We often focus on defects in the safety net — people who aren’t served, people who are but not sufficiently. This is still important.

But, taking a leaf out of Morgan’s book, I feel we urgently need to show how much good safety net programs do — and to revive the history of what poverty in America was like before them.

* This figure comes from the arch-conservative Heritage Foundation — a not always reliable source. The RSC is also indebted to the Foundation for its uniquely expansive definition of “welfare”.


New Survey Results Offer Strategy Insights For Advocates

July 1, 2011

Washington Monthly editor Art Levine observes that the District’s safety net organizations are “mostly under-funded, poorly organized and lack media savvy” — this as a partial explanation for the spending cuts and related policy changes the DC Council seemed ready to approve.

I think Levine’s basically right about the limits of our hometown advocacy campaigns, though organization seems to be getting better. Something similar could probably be said about many safety net campaigns in cities across the country.

But, journalist that Levine is, he may be overestimating the difference “media savvy” could make — and discounting the effectiveness of some strategies that even a savvy PR specialist would find challenging to pitch.

It’s certainly true that our major media have been much more preoccupied with bickering among Councilmembers over the Mayor Gray’s proposed tax increases — even more preoccupied with the ins-and-outs of potential malfeasance.

But it’s questionable whether more and better reporting on the proposed safety net cuts would have made much difference. Many reasons for this.

One is suggested by a fascinating new report on which strategies Congressional staff think would have a significant influence when their bosses hadn’t already made a firm decision on an issue.

For strategies directed to Capitol Hill offices — the most comparable to the offices Councilmembers occupy in the Wilson building — news editorial endorsements ranked eighth among the twelve options that staff surveyed were asked about.

Only 10% of them thought editorial endorsements would make “a lot of positive difference.”

Seems reasonable to assume that straight news coverage would make less — though it could, of course, build support among the dwindling number of people who still follow what can properly be characterized as news.

But support means nothing unless it’s acted on. And here’s where some of the other survey results are enlightening.

Top of the effective strategies list were in-person visits from constituents, followed by contacts from constituents who represent other constituents. Well over 90% of survey respondents endorsed both — and 46% put the former in the very influential category.

Individualized letters and e-mails came in next, followed by phone calls. Form letters and e-mails ranked much lower. And only 1% of respondents thought they would make a big difference.

Same 1% for comments on social media sites. Not good news for us bloggers and tweeters.

Respondents were also asked which strategies they thought were important for understanding constituents’ views.

Again, in-person strategies — attending events and town hall meetings — ranked very high. So did personalized messages, whether conveyed via snail mail, e-mail, telephone or fax.

Identical communications ranked lower and were considered very important by only 4%.

Now, the U.S. Congress isn’t the DC Council and its counterparts. We’d be in even worse straits if it were. But that doesn’t mean the survey findings are irrelevant to local advocacy campaigns.

To my mind, in fact, they may be more relevant than to large national campaigns. Because local organizations have much more limited resources. Investments in strategies with a low return can mean little or no investments in the high pay-offs.

Perhaps advocacy organizations at all levels could use the survey findings as a strategy screen. At the very least, the findings seem to me a call to assess strategies that are routinely used just because they’re part of the repertoire.

What do you think?