Reality Bites Back
This has been a long time coming:
Even Democrats who support other candidates admit, grudgingly, that Edwards’s proposals would very likely have some measurable impact on American poverty. The expansion of the earned-income tax credit alone, Democratic analysts say, would translate into a $750 annual windfall, on average, for about four million poor Americans. Social scientists say pilot projects along the lines of Edwards’s work bonds have lent credence to the idea that the working poor can successfully be encouraged to save some of their wages, as long as the process of setting up the account isn’t onerous. The public-housing vouchers Edwards talks about have been the subject of some controversy, and opponents cite mixed results, but most experts — not to mention anybody who has ever spent time in the projects of the Bronx or Boston — believe that finally dismantling the 1960s experiment in warehousing the poor can only be a good thing for the people who live there.The question isn’t whether these policies will make a difference, but whether they will make all the difference — that is, whether Edwards’s plan would really eradicate poverty in America, or at least significantly diminish it. Most leading economists in the antipoverty field, particularly those who aren’t partisans in the old and stultified political debate between Great Society liberals and Reagan-era conservatives, now talk about poverty solutions as having two components. The first and most obvious is economic. Being poor means, quite literally, that you don’t have money; it stands to reason, then, that offering jobs and tax credits that encourage people to work will, on some level, alleviate poverty. The second component, however, has to do with what a lot of academics now refer to as “human capital.” This comprises the other, less visible resources, aside from money, that many poor people lack: education, marketable skills, contacts, self-discipline. The kinds of advantages that middle-class families take for granted — knowing, say, how to ace a job interview or how to prepare your children for success in school — often elude those who have grown up in poverty, thus perpetuating a cycle of economic failure.
Social scientists have been thinking hard about how to create policies that address this less quantifiable aspect of poverty. In New York City, acting on the work of his special commission on poverty, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is raising money (an undisclosed amount of which is his own) for an innovative pilot project, inspired by similar programs in countries like Mexico and South Africa, that will award cash payments to parents who participate in their child’s health care and schooling. Some experts, meanwhile, argue the best (and maybe the only) way to bridge the divide in human capital is to expand and improve early-childhood educational programs. One leading voice in this camp is the University of Chicago’s James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, who contends, after years of studying the subject, that all the low-wage jobs and adult training programs on the planet won’t succeed in eliminating poverty unless government intervenes in the earliest stages of childhood, when tax dollars have been shown to yield the most return. “If people have limited options, low skills and an inability to function in the larger economy,” Heckman told me, “you can give them money, but if you don’t give them the skills, if you don’t somehow improve their access to those institutions that make a society productive, then all you’re going to do is more of what we did in the 1960s with the War on Poverty — namely, it will eradicate poverty in the sense that it will give people money, but it won’t lead to sustained growth of income, and the kids of these people will probably also enter poverty.”
Holes in the Safety Net To liberals, historically, taking on things like parenting skills and self-discipline veers dangerously close to blaming people for their own poverty — which is what they charge conservatives with doing. Instead, Democrats in the era since Bill Clinton have settled on a delicate formula for talking about poverty: they make concrete proposals in the economic realm (job training, tax credits, a higher minimum wage) while sternly deploying code phrases (“personal responsibility,” “playing by the rules”) that suggest that those in need also have to make better choices for themselves and their children. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Edwards follows this same basic regimen. While he talks about making people “take responsibility” and emphasizes the value of work, his antipoverty agenda contains little that is new or innovative to encourage better parenting or to impart more useful life skills. When I asked him about this, Edwards assured me that he understands the scope of the issue. He told me that he had visited more than 100 antipoverty and neighborhood centers around the country since the last election and that what he saw in some of those places stunned him. “When you’re sitting with a woman who’s working two or three jobs and having a terrible time making ends meet, and she tells you that her 14-year-old girl is having her third child, it makes you weep inside,” he said, with obvious emotion. “I mean, where’s the hope? They are absolutely doomed to poverty.”…
There are so many intertwined issues tangled up in the vast mess that is poverty. And so often politicians talk about a single strand as if pulling on that one string will unravel the whole mess. It is well past time that we started talking about the issues as a whole — multiple puzzle pieces that must, somehow, be put together to form something far more decent and coherent. That includes access to health care and mental health services, including preventative care which is desperately needed, and a whole host of other issues from childcare to job training and education to family intervention services to parenting classes to…well, you see what I mean that once you start thinking about all of the issues involved in this, the magnitude of the problem — and its elusive solutions starts to hit home.
The reality is that there is a growing underclass of folks in America with no safety net. For every person out there who is griping about American moral obligations, to ignore this issue or pass it over as a “if they were better people, they’d lift themselves up and do some real work” is appallingly uninformed about what it is like to be a small child in an impoverished, malnourished, abusive household, filled with adults who are not coping well with mental issues, drug and alcohol addictions, and worse. Having seen the results of this cycle of poverty and desperation in generation after generation of some families who weave in and out of our local criminal justice system, I can tell you that this is not a problem with an easy fix. But tackle it we must for the good of everyone in our communities.
Everyone has to pitch in on this — and I do mean everyone. More of this sort of discussion please — because the children born into this cycle of poverty need all of us. And good on Edwards and every other politician who has been working on this issue, publicly and privately. Hillary Clinton was correct all those years ago when she said that “it takes a village,” because it does — and the sooner everyone realizes that we are all connected to one another in ways that we cannot always immediately quantify, the better we will all be.
This is an issue that impacts criminal justice, education, medical care costs over the long term, and so many, many other issues. We discuss this and act because we must. To do otherwise is, quite simply, immoral. I know that a lot of our readers work in fields where they are directly involved in issues that intersect with poverty concerns. I’d love to hear your thoughts this morning on things that are being done well — and things that need work.
And I’ve clearly got another book to add to my “to read” pile once the Edwards poverty essay compilation arrives. If you haven’t read it already, this compilation of essays put together by Alan Curtis of the Eisenhower Foundation is a great place to start.
(Photo of a homeless woman in California via Shavar.)