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Issue No. 27 (September 2001) -- Mark Satin, Editor
Left, right and
One thing we didn't hear from any of the major presidential candidates last year, even the “reform” candidates, is what to do about poverty in America.
Yes, Senator Bradley proposed “guaranteeing” health care for poor children. And Senator McCain proposed tax relief for poor families. But not a word from either of these men about the fact that a fifth of us can barely cope.
No doubt the politicians were terrified of raising the spectre of the Sixties. But that’s a shame, and not just because it signals political cowardice. The thinking about poverty has become a lot more realistic since Ken Galbraith et al. persuaded the Greatest Generation that helping the poor largely means giving them money (and shiny new high-rise apartments), and President Johnson launched his ill-fated War on Poverty.
Today, for the first time in three decades, comprehensive new anti-poverty agendas are being proposed by prominent scholars and civic leaders. And they’re about as different from the “entitlements”-based agendas of the Sixties as can be imagined.
They’re infinitely more sensitive to the totality of the problems of the poor.
They involve a lot more entities than the federal government.
They’re more supervisory (some might say “paternalistic” or “maternalistic”), but at the same time less bureaucratic, more responsive to individual poor people’s unique situations.
And they’re not just coming from one end of the political spectrum! Of the three most promising agendas from the last three years, one is from a leading radical-liberal scholar, Rebecca M. Blank, former director of the Joint Center for Poverty Research at Northwestern University (It Takes a Nation : A New Agenda for, 1997).
Another is from a leading conservative scholar, Lawrence M. Mead -- one of the token conservatives at New York University -- working in collaboration with the Brookings Institution (Mead., ed., The New Paternalism : Supervisory Approaches to Fighting Poverty, 1997).
And the third is from a theologian whose politics can best be described as “radical middle” -- Ronald J. Sider, President of Evangelicals for Social Action. Sider, who’s lived, taught and ministered in poor and working-class neighborhoods in Philadelphia for 30 years, got former Nixon aide Chuck Colson to write a forward to the agenda -- and radical black pastor Eugene Rivers to write an afterword (Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America, 1999).
There are differences among Blank’s, Mead’s and Sider’s agendas. But what’s more striking are the similarities.
Put them all together and you’ll not only get a holistic anti-poverty agenda for the 21st century. You’ll get a sense -- a sense we haven’t felt since, well, the Sixties -- that with enough political will, we could eliminate poverty within the next two generations.
Before the “new generation” of holistic anti-poverty agendas could flourish, poverty had to be re-thought.
Economic measures of poverty are evocative. The official “poverty level” for a family of four is only $16,530 -- and 36 million Americans live below the poverty level. Surely at least 55 million of us are “poor” by any reasonable financial measure.
But over the last decade, social scientists have questioned whether money is the best measure of poverty -- and they’ve begun to carry the day.
In his important book Inequality Reexamined (1992), Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen redefines poverty as a lack of “capabilities.”
And in her book What Money Can't Buy (1997), a book that’s caused a tremendous stir in the public policy community, University of Chicago professor Susan Mayer shows that all other things being equal, there’s almost no correlation between family income and children’s life chances (e.g., children’s test scores are likely to improve by one or two points when their parents’ income doubles).
“Liberals worked hard for the cash and noncash transfers that have helped reduce the most serious material deprivations,” Mayer concludes. “[Now] advantage comes from having parents whose [mental] depression is treated . . . , from having parents who love to read or do math, parents who love rather than tolerate their children. . . .”
The Sen / Mayer sensibility pervades all the new anti-poverty agendas. They’ve been designed to enhance motivation, self-regard, health, education, and personal responsibility -- not to “win” for the poor more money per se or more shiny new high-rises.
Other hobgoblins are attacked head-on by Blank, Mead and Sider.
In the Sixties and Seventies, social scientists tore themselves apart arguing over the “real” or “deepest” cause of poverty. Not the new generation. “There is no single cause,” Blank says simply.
From the Eighties through the Nineties, social scientists spilled much ink debating whether government or the private sector is the relevant anti-poverty vehicle. Here, too, the new generation takes a pass. “[We need] to work out a new vision of how religious institutions, government, and other sectors of society can best work together,” says Sider.
So how would the new generation attack poverty? Above all, comprehensively; holistically.
Blank calls for an “interlocking system of programs.” Mead emphasizes a “social contract, meaning that recipients have to satisfy behavioral requirements, such as working or staying in school, . . . to receive aid.” And Sider states, “Only an integrated combination of interventions can offer hope.”
Put the anti-poverty agendas of Blank, Mead and Sider together and you get a seamless web of proposals covering seven key areas: work, family, health care, education, neighborhoods, welfare administration, and psychological/spiritual healing.
If the Sixties anti-poverty agenda emphasized welfare, the holistic new anti-poverty agenda emphasizes work -- not so much for moralistic reasons as to build up poor people’s capabilities and self-regard.
Like most holistic advocates, Mead would require most people on welfare to look for work. When one well-run job search program was made mandatory, “the number of people getting jobs doubled over any previous year,” he says.
Flip side of the work requirement is making sure work pays more than welfare. If the holistic new anti-poverty proponents are militant about anything, they’re militant about that.
Their vessel of choice is the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which provides subsidies to low-wage workers with children through the federal tax system. (If you have kids and owe federal taxes, the EITC will reduce your liability. If you don’t owe taxes, the EITC actually provides a supplement through your paycheck.)
“Rather than providing general income assistance,” Blank says enthusiastically, “receipt of the EITC is linked to work behavior. [Moreover,] EITC subsidies increase as [income from] work increases, exactly the opposite of most transfer programs.” (Subsidies begin to decline once families pass $11,000/year.)
Sider speaks for most holistic anti-poverty advocates when he argues for “substantially expanding” the EITC.
“Through some combination of wages plus EITC and food stamps, the government [should] bring each family with children up to 120 to 130 percent of the national poverty level,” he says. “State and city EITCs could supplement that where necessary to raise families to at least 130 percent of the regional poverty level.”
Holistic anti-poverty activists have probably put more thought into protecting families than into any other area.
Rebecca Maynard, writing in the Mead anthology, wants teenage parents who haven’t completed high school to “attend school full-time despite their parenting responsibilities.” She points to one innovative program offering a $62/month bonus if teenage welfare recipients comply with school attendance and performance standards -- and a $62/month penalty if they don’t comply.
Supposedly there’s no better indicator that you’ll make healthy life choices than having your high school diploma.
Blank wants state governments to guarantee child support payments, “collecting from fathers where possible but making up the difference from state budget dollars when it cannot collect.” Sider heatedly objects.
By channeling benefits solely to unattached parents, he says, you’re rewarding illegitimacy and divorce. What about equally poor two-parent families?
His alternative: Expand the EITC (above) and offer a hefty “dependent tax care credit” to every unattached mom or two-parent family where at least one member works outside the home. “As in the case of the EITC, this credit must be available at least monthly with the paycheck [and] could be [decreased] gradually [till incomes reach] $25,000.”
Families that have their own space tend to stay together. So Sider proposes a refundable Home Ownership Tax Credit for lower-income families worth $1,500 a year, also modeled on the EITC.
Expanding health care
Blank wants Medicaid to provide greater emphasis on preventive care -- for example, by “promoting preventative visits for prenatal care, for childhood illnesses, or for chronic complaints.” Some holistic anti-poverty activists support mandatory once-a-year physical exams.
In the short run, Sider would expand the Children’s Health Insurance Program to cover all kids living below 133% of the poverty level. In the long run, he’d extend health coverage to everyone.
“We could keep Medicare for the elderly, expand Medicaid to include all the unemployed, and require that all employees purchase private insurance for themselves and their dependents,” he says. Of course, that would “require subsidy for low-income workers.”
Blank argues for “school-to-work programs for non-college-bound students,” which in more innocent times we used to deride as “tracking.”
She points to “hosts of new experimental programs” that are “restructuring the high school environment for disadvantaged teenagers. . . . [Some schools] run smaller ‘school-within-a-school’ [or ‘tech prep’] programs for at-risk youth. Private business/public school partnerships set up summer employment and mentoring opportunities for teens. . . .”
Chester Finn, in the Mead anthology, pleads for schools to go back to basics. “[B]asic skills and knowledge are what disadvantaged youngsters, in particular, most acutely lack,” he says.
Sider would have us immediately launch a “massive five-year test” of (1) vouchers in a dozen inner cities, and (2) the best reform-of-the-public-schools proposals in a dozen other inner cities.
Blank wants community development corporations, congregations, and other community groups to initiate “structural changes” in low-income communities. “Most neighborhood development efforts that accomplish real change are initiated by local community organizations and institutions and not by government programs,” she says.
But government can help community groups, she adds -- with grants, low-interest loans, tax breaks, wage subsidies, and by being flexible about real estate and building regulations.
At the same time, Blank wants to jolt poor people’s horizons beyond their neighborhoods. “Teen-focused education and employment programs[, for instance,] should give teens experiences outside their immediate neighborhood,” she says.
Tending psyche and spirit
Miles Shore, in the Mead anthology, notes that “at least 30%” of people in poverty have had “an identifiable mental disorder” within the last year -- typically depression or an anxiety disorder.
He wants all welfare recipients to be given a “psychological assessment,” for two purposes -- “to identify treatable disorders and offer appropriate interventions, and to use the information to tailor case management, vocational placement, and other social service interventions to the cognitive and emotional capabilities of the recipients.”
Sider wants church volunteers to form “ministry teams” to help families in need. “The ministry team establishes a close friendship with the welfare family,” he explains, “providing physical, social, emotional, and spiritual support for up to a year.”
The Achilles’ heel of all anti-poverty efforts is the U.S. welfare bureaucracy, world famous for incompetence, hostility, insensitivity, and not giving a damn.
“Though they are little discussed publicly,” Blank says, “management difficulties may be the worst aspect of [welfare today]. Reforms that ignore [them] are not likely to provide substantial improvements in public assistance.”
Inexorably, Blank traces these “difficulties” back to the Sixties: “Rather than allowing case worker discretion, which could result in strong racial or ethnic discrimination, a series of lawsuits moved the U.S. to implement a [narrowly rule-based welfare system. Then, because case workers] no longer had any decision-making authority, states were able to use less-skilled workers in [welfare] offices. . . .”
An article in the current Brookings Review speaks for all three holistic anti-poverty advocates when it says, “[T]here is little evidence that government can win the recruiting battle [against nonprofit agencies] with higher pay. Young Americans [wanting to serve the public good] are not saying, ‘Show me the money’ so much as ‘Show me the work.’ And on that count government is losing ground.”
The holistic new anti-poverty agenda may seem daunting. But nobody, not even Galbraith, ever said ending poverty would be simple.
The agenda may also seem expensive. But I suspect it would save money in the long run, considering how much more productive many poor Americans or their children would become.
Not to mention how much happier.
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