Commentary Magazine

Crying Poverty

With the Democratic party now on the march in American politics, the issue of poverty has made a comeback. One of the first acts of the new majority on Capitol Hill was to raise the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour in order to help the “working poor,” and a “living wage” movement is making headway at the grass roots, pressuring states and localities to pay even more to low-skilled workers. Congressman Charles Rangel, the new chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has declared poverty “a threat to national security,” and the committee recently held a hearing on the subject. Among the advocates in attendance was John Podesta, a former aide to President Clinton and now the head of the Center for American Progress, who urged the lawmakers to spend $90 billion more a year on various new benefits for low-income families.

As for the Democratic presidential contenders, John Edwards has built his campaign around the idea that there are “two Americas,” one of them affluent and the other struggling to get by. Like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, he has stressed the need to improve health-care coverage, especially for low-paid workers who are not insured by their employers. The Democrats obviously believe that poverty is an issue with political traction.

Nor are partisans on the Left alone in their concern. The moderate Brookings Institution has been busy publishing its own sober assessments of poverty and inequality, and the Bush administration, in the spirit of “compassionate conservatism,” wants to spend more on poor fathers and programs for ex-offenders leaving prison.

Yet despite the rhetoric and public gestures, there is a curious lack of urgency about this new anti-poverty agenda. It has a grim, forced quality about it, as if performed out of duty rather than optimism. The price tag on the new proposals is big enough, yet they themselves seem small-bore, a far cry from the grand designs and high hopes of the original “war on poverty.” In June, the New York Times Magazine devoted an entire issue to inequality in America, with a somber John Edwards posing on the cover. But as several of the articles suggested, the roots of our income and wealth disparities are not well understood, nor does anyone have clear solutions. With his recycled ideas for wage subsidies and special savings accounts, Edwards himself has little new to say on the subject.

We are thus left with a paradox. Many in Washington believe that poverty deserves more attention, yet they approach the problem with great caution. Gone is the confidence of the 1960’s and, before that, the New Deal. For the first time in generations, no one is bullish on the idea that we can end poverty anytime soon.



For most of the 20th century (and especially in the wake of the Great Depression), destitution in the U.S. was blamed on the failure of the labor market. Poor adults were those who either could not find jobs or were forced to work for very low pay. Critics on the Left saw capitalism itself as the culprit: the free market, they said, benefited owners rather than employees, whose toil was no guarantee that they would be offered jobs or wages high enough to live on. And so government had to intervene. In America as in Europe, reform movements agitated for the power to organize unions, for economic policies to maintain full employment, and for the establishment of programs like Social Security to cushion workers against the loss of income due to unemployment or retirement.

After World War II, such measures helped to lift the bulk of American workers and their families into the middle class. Whenever the economy was hot, as during the 1960’s, wages rose and the poverty level fell. From this viewpoint, the government needed only to ensure that jobs were available and to “make work pay.” Poverty was seen as an affliction of the working class, and the assumption was that poor adults would work whenever they could.

Unfortunately, the boom of the 1960’s left behind a smaller and largely nonworking poor population. In 1959, 68 percent of the heads of poor families worked, 31 percent of them full-time and year-’round. By 1975 those figures had fallen to 50 and 16 percent respectively, and they have changed little since then. For the nonworking poor, a hot economy was no solution. During the boom of the 1990’s, poverty fell much less than it had in the 1960’s.

Liberal advocates like to suggest that most of the poor rely on employment. A “working” family, they often say, is one in which anyone earns any income at all over a year. In reality, though, the nonworking poor far outnumber the working. Only 37 percent of poor adults (sixteen and over) claimed any earnings at all in 2005, and just 11 percent of them worked full-time all year. This contrasts with figures of 68 and 46 percent, respectively, for the general population. Moreover, only 4 percent of the nonworking poor blame their idleness on an inability to find work. More often they report that they are ill, retired, in school, or taking care of families.

Still, the idea has persisted on the Left that the poor are really the unemployed. In the 1970’s, the activist-academics Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward famously argued that welfare was really a species of unemployment insurance—a way to buy off the working class when jobs were scarce. The trouble with this view was that the welfare rolls exploded precisely during the prosperous 1960’s—that is, during good times, not bad. The vast expansion of welfare in that era was not a result of falling employment among the poor but a cause of it. As even Marx realized, only those who labor can claim to be exploited. By the 1980’s, few poor adults were victims of the economy—they largely stood outside it, not even looking for work.

As it became less plausible to blame American poverty on the labor market, a second thesis emerged, this one concerning race. The poor are disproportionately nonwhite. In 2005, a quarter of them were black and a quarter Hispanic, percentages far above the share of these groups in the general population. Moreover, of people who remain poor over several years, a majority are nonwhite. Some argue, accordingly, that the poor are kept out of work by racial discrimination. A leading goal of the civil-rights reforms of the 1960’s was to put a stop to this bias.

The problem with this argument is that, for blacks in particular, poverty in its most self-defeating form—marked by lower work levels and higher rates of crime and substance abuse—emerged largely after the civil-rights era rather than before it. Over the past several decades, educated and employed blacks have gained enormously from wider opportunities, moving up to higher wages and professional jobs. But the steady advance of the black middle class has occurred alongside worsening conditions for poor blacks. A fairer society, with strong taboos against discrimination (and, indeed, racial preferences), has not been enough to overcome poverty.

The leading explanation for this dismal trend, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan first suggested more than 40 years ago, is the dissolution of the black family. When Moynihan issued his famous report in 1965, a quarter of black children were born out of wedlock. Today, that figure is 68 percent. Stable marriage has virtually disappeared in poor black areas, undercutting basic socialization. Even in the affluent 1990’s, labor-force participation declined among younger black men. Today, a third of these men have criminal records, and half are absent fathers, with many of their children subsisting on welfare.



As race became a less plausible explanation for poverty, many academics and advocates searched for other “social barriers” on which to pin the blame. After all, the poor were often isolated in ghetto areas, where their children received inferior schooling and health care. Welfare itself was a disincentive to work, since grants were reduced when a mother had earnings. Above all, jobs seemed to be disappearing from the inner city. There was said to be a “mismatch” between low-skill workers there and the employment available to them. Jobs appeared to be largely out of reach in the suburbs or to require too much education.

But none of these theories held up, either. High skills are not necessary to avoid poverty. Getting and keeping a job require only personal discipline, as the success of many recent immigrants from Asia and Latin America has demonstrated. But when the nonworking poor were given training or education, it typically had little effect; the programs did not cause clients to work more regularly than before. Nor did improvements in incentives—that is, allowing recipients to keep more of their public aid if they worked—raise the employment of those on welfare. Even providing government-guaranteed jobs failed to improve their situation, and for the same underlying reason: it did little to alter the habits and attitudes that kept people from getting and keeping jobs in the private economy, where work was already available. Studies also showed that proximity to employment had at best only a small effect on whether the poor worked.

Thus, by the 1990’s, many politicians and policymakers had begun to question the idea that poverty was caused by impediments that government could remove. Indeed, some took the opposite view: because of welfare, many of the poor had the option not to work, and were therefore all too free. The solution was not to expand opportunities but to enforce obligations. The poor would be required to work, not just offered the chance to do so. The public strongly supported this approach, and both parties endorsed it, although some liberal Democrats dissented. Congressional Republicans crafted radical welfare-reform legislation—the Personal Responsibility Act of 1996—and President Clinton signed it into law.

Most welfare experts predicted disaster. If the failures of the poor were a result of external barriers, as they believed, conditioning public aid on work would only throw poor families into the street. But reform triumphed. With startling speed, millions of welfare recipients took jobs. Work levels among poor single mothers soared. Between 1994 and the early 2000’s, the welfare rolls plummeted by 60 percent. Child poverty also fell, though less sharply.

The credit for this astonishing shift goes partly to the superb economy of the late 1990’s and to higher spending on child care and wage subsidies. But the new work tests were what broke the mold. They spurred welfare mothers to seek work more seriously than ever before.

For social scientists and advocates, this outcome was a signal defeat. It largely refuted the deterministic view of poverty that they had devised. In their statistical models, adverse social conditions had seemed to explain and excuse the failure of most poor people to work. Yet, once government clearly demanded work and made it a condition of aid, the poor responded. Deficient public authority—not a lack of opportunity—had been the major cause of poverty.



Even with the stunning success of welfare reform, however, poverty remains a problem in the U.S. The government defines poverty in terms of low income, adjusted for family size. The poverty line for a family of three, for example, was $15,735 in 2005 (the most recent year for which we have data). That is a meager income by American standards (though vastly above what counts as poverty in developing countries). By this measure, about 13 percent of Americans were poor in 2005.

But as many analysts have noted, these numbers overstate the real extent of poverty. The current measure considers only pre-tax cash income, excluding a range of government benefits like food stamps, housing, and wage subsidies. Douglas Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute has calculated that to include these other benefits would reduce the poverty rate to 5 percent or less. It is also clear, to judge by the level at which they consume, that many people counted as poor underreport their income. Most possess color televisions and VCR’s, and nearly half own their own homes.

Considered strictly as a problem of income, the government might well abolish poverty simply by giving money to the poor. The average poor family in 2005 fell $8,125 below the poverty line. To lift all 7.7 million of those families up to the line would have cost $62 billion—a substantial sum but less than what we now spend on anti-poverty programs. This, in fact, is largely how Europe has dealt with the problem: income transfers, with no questions asked. Many academics who study poverty would like the U.S. to do the same.

But Americans have always put more stress on “deservingness.” We prefer to help people who have become needy due to circumstances, not their own actions. In America, even liberals have adhered to that tradition—by seeking reasons for poverty outside the poor themselves, in the economy, racism, or other barriers. Today, as we have seen, those theories are largely exhausted. Although impediments to working may still affect some people, poverty is overwhelmingly a result of dysfunctional patterns of life.

Families are poor in America in 2007 typically because unmarried parents have children and then do not work regularly to support them. Other social problems—crime, substance abuse, school failure—tend to cluster in poor areas. Though much poverty is transient, an underclass composed of the long-term poor overshadows American cities. It is their self-defeating way of life, not just their low income, that most people now associate with poverty. Welfare reform succeeded chiefly by changing habits and attitudes, not by changing society. It has become difficult to avoid the conclusion that serious poverty in America is rooted in the culture of the poor.



This realization is one reason for the joyless character of the current anti-poverty campaign. Another explanation is the lack of political support from below. What is most striking about the current effort is how detached it is from any substantial voting constituency.

Historically, efforts to uplift the downtrodden emerged from the grassroots, where they won the active support of their potential beneficiaries. One thinks of the unionists who followed Walter Reuther in the 1930’s, or the civil-rights activists who heeded Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, call a generation later. Elites provided leadership, to be sure, but the energy of these movements was local and popular.

Since the 1960’s, liberals have struggled, without success, to develop similar support for anti-poverty programs. They have had only passing victories. The Community Action Program, innocently enacted as part of the “war on poverty” in the 1960’s, was seized on by radicals in some cities to challenge municipal governments. In the same era, a welfare-rights movement arose, mobilizing poor mothers to stage protests at welfare offices in order to claim higher benefits. But these outbursts did not last. Dependent on public largesse and lacking sustained support in their own communities, they faded away with the federal programs that had spawned them.

The great obstacle to a renewed radicalism, then as now, is that the poor, unlike the followers of past social movements, simply lack the organization and discipline needed to advance their own interests, or even to support candidates who might speak for them. This reflects the same problems that make for poverty in the first place. Society among today’s poor is profoundly disordered. Men live largely detached from families, while women are distracted by single motherhood. Young people are more oriented to the street than to school. Above all, a lack of steady employment denies most poor adults the standing they would need to have a serious influence in politics.

True radicalism is largely the doing of the upwardly mobile and of working men committed to supporting their families. The unionists who followed Walter Reuther in the 1930’s possessed, because of their employment, the power to bring whole industries to a halt. Many of the black civil-rights marchers of the 1960’s were college students, who then went on to enter the expanding black middle class. The poor of today’s inner city have nothing like the same capacities. They are in fact a disorganized lumpenproletariat, for which Marx had only scorn.

The only workers marching in American cities today are illegal immigrants, fearful that they will be deported. Their demonstrations might seem to represent a revival of the radical tradition, but without legal status, the immigrants arouse as much opposition as support. Having come here largely to do jobs that the native-born poor no longer do, they actually dramatize what is amiss with poor people in America. Only when American citizens again take those jobs, and then take action, will politicians notice. Meanwhile, immigration has only exacerbated the divisions and problems that make the poor largely invisible in public life.

This silence from below has made the politics of poverty increasingly elitist. In today’s Washington, the poor are typically spoken for by experts armed with statistics, or by advocates who are not themselves poor. Sometimes an eloquent populist like John Edwards will rally to the cause, trying to stir indignation in the electorate at large. What one almost never sees, in front of the Ways and Means Committee or anywhere else, is the poor speaking for themselves. Even the living-wage movement is the work of better-off advocates more than of the low-wage workers who would benefit from it.



Today’s anti-poverty crusaders, even on the Left, tacitly accept that serious poverty in America has a cultural basis. This conclusion, which would once have been denounced as “blaming the victim,” accounts for the relative modesty and sobriety of the new anti-poverty proposals. Despite recent successes, government has found no sure way to get poor adults to work more steadily and avoid unwed pregnancies. It is clear that changing these patterns of dysfunctional behavior will take a long time. Analysts speak of “investing” in early-childhood education and other programs so as to produce a slow amelioration over generations.

Compared with the 1960’s, partisan differences over the issue have actually cooled considerably. A spirit of problem-solving now dominates, especially at the state and local level. Through welfare reform, officials have tried to craft a regime that expects and rewards work and other constructive behaviors. Democrats will press for higher spending on benefits, and may win their point. But they too know that any new largesse must be linked to demands that the recipients help themselves.

And welfare reform itself still needs reforming. When Congress reauthorized the program last year, it remedied certain weaknesses in the 1996 law, but it left others untouched. The most important change would be to extend work requirements to more poor men. Because they seldom receive welfare—a program mainly serving mothers with children—they cannot be made to hold a job in return for it. But some men are supposed to work as a condition of parole from prison, or because they owe child support to their families. Those obligations could be enforced more effectively, and programs to do this are in the works.

Will extending the reach of welfare reform, with its long-overdue emphasis on work and responsibility, transform the lives of the poor? Certainly not in the short term. But the absence of easy answers does not free us of the need to try. Society may not be to blame for the plight of today’s poor, as the Left has maintained. But we still have an obligation to improve the lives of our least-fortunate citizens, especially children born into broken, disordered families. For the poor, the claims of justice are largely exhausted, but the claims of charity remain.


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