Saturday, September 29, 2012

The problem of poverty in America

The American Prospect issue for July/Aug 2012 was a special issue on poverty in the United States. I'm glad to see this issue achieving some more prominence, forced on to the political scene (if not so much onto the national political agenda) by the current depression.

The Prospect's treatment of the poverty problem is a mixed bag. Some of the articles convey a sense that this is really not an issue that liberals want to deal with. Others make more important observations that offer insight into the present state of poverty in the US. I'm making short summaries here.

The titles used here are from the print edition. The print edition also contains five sidebars by Patrick Caldwell describing anti-poverty initiatives in different parts of the country (which don't seem to be online as of this writing): "Step Up Savannah" (Georgia); "Wisconsin Regional Training Parnership"; "Project Match" (Chicago); "Oasis Center" (Nashville); and, "Family Independence Initiative" (San Francisco Bay Area). All seem to be worthy endeavors and are reminders that serious effort and careful work can produce positive results. But without a national commitment to combat poverty, their successes will remain far too isolated and limited.

Paul Starr makes a useful observation about the Democratic Party and the various democratic movements of the 1960s in the US in his introductory piece, The Sixties at 50 06/07/2012:

The ’60s movements were not just intellectually unprepared for the slowdown in growth and rise in inequality that began in the mid-1970s; they were institutionally unprepared, too. The civil-rights, feminist, anti-war, and environmental movements—and others that came later—operated more or less on their own. They had particularly tense relations with the labor movement, which many of the new organizations saw as a bulwark of the status quo. On the left, solidarity was not forever. When Democrats had congressional majorities, they made no effort to repeal Taft-Hartley, the 1947 law that severely limited union organizing, or to adopt other measures that could have strengthened unions. They failed to appreciate how much their own concerns depended on the unions’ role in mobilizing working-class support for progressive goals. [my emphasis]
Peter Edelman, Worse than We Thought, but We Can Solve This

This introductory essay is strangely ambiguous. He states that the "dire facts" of poverty in the US that he describes "tempt one to believe that there may be some truth to President Ronald Reagan's often-quoted declaration that 'we fought a war against poverty and poverty won'." Actually, they don't tempt me to think that. But Edelman goes on to more-or-less make that argument. He then goes on to explain reasons that it isn't true. But his description definitely conveys a sense of resignation about the problem.

Jesse Katz, The Geography of Getting By

These is an interesting, well-written article about an unauthorized but thriving Latino street market area in Los Angeles. But this also leaves the reader without much sense of the social dynamics of the issues involved, or any suggestion of how the issues in dispute between the vendors and the city might be resolved in a constructive way. Here again, the article leaves the reader more with a sense of resignation than insight, much less hope. His closing lines describes the police clearing the unauthorized street vendors, ending with, "A week later they [two of the vendors] were both back out on Alvarado, and again, the week after that." Yeah, the poor we have with us always. We can get that message, a distortion of a Gospel passage, from any Joe Blow white conservative.

Maybe worst of all, he at times sounds like Tom Friedman:

As any laissez-faire, pro-business apostle would recognize, the unfettered marketplace is a formidable creature, inventive, adaptable, resilient, responsive to supply and demand. The peddler whose schedule and location and product line are dictated by the government will always be at a disadvantage, especially if the free market is raging around the corner.
That, unfortunately, is about the level of sociology in this article.

Harry Holzer, "Upgrading Skills, Upgrading Opportunity" (also doesn't seem to be online)

A stock neoliberal article of faith is that most unemployment can be solved through better education and job training. This faith is closely connected with the trope of "structural unemployment". (On that topic, see Paul Krugman, Mishmash Not 09/02/2012)

Holzer here gives us a version of the education-will-fix-everything view of unemployment and low wages, though he does toss in a few qualifiers. For instance, he writes that "a realistic strategy to improve the earnings opportunjites of the poor must also pay some atttention to the quality of jobs produced in our economy (through such measures as strong labor standards)." But his actual argument pretty much ignores the qualifiers.

Monica Potts, Pressing on the Upward Way

An engaging story of a poor white family in Appalachia. It's informative, but suffers from a just-the-fact narrative style that neglects exploring some interesting questions, such as the apparent political conservatism of a family that is anything but someone that Mitt and Ann Romney would invite to watch Ann's dressage horses practice.

Mark Levinson, Mismeasuring - and Its Consequences

This is an important issue. The current definitions of poverty set the bar for what constitutes a poverty-level income way too low, understating the actual incidence of poverty.

Abby Rapoport, School for Success

About an intensive program in Austin to help lower-skilled workers upgrade their education and marketable skills. This contains some inspiring stories. It also shows how effective anti-poverty efforts need a sustained level of resources and well-trained, dedicated employees in the programs for them to be effective.

Roundtable: Progress, Paradox, and the Path Ahead (apparently print edition only)

In which four white guys and an African-American woman talk about the problems of poverty. It's a decent discussion, the five participants being Peter Edelman, Robert Greenstein, Ron Haskins, Harry Holzer and Angela Glover Blackwell. Blackwell has the most meaningful comments, e.g., "We are not a poor country, and we need to stop acting like one." Haskins and Holzer seem to buy into the Establishment consensus that we need to, as Haskins puts it, "focus on reducing the rate of increase on spending on the elderly and invest that money in kids." The standard "Simpson-Bowles" type rhetoric meaning let's cut benefits on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and then we'll spend more money somehow sometime on stuff that benefits kids, honest to goodness we will.

Don Terry, Where Work Disappears and Dreams Die

An informative piece about the "Rust Belt" city of Gary, Indiana.

Sasha Abramsky, Creating a Countercyclical Welfare System

Abramsky makes the important point that one of the economic benefits of an effective welfare system would be that it would kick in at a higher level during recessions and depressions, thus providing help to people when they need it and also providing an automatic, counter-cyclical economic stabilizer to the economy. But the (in)famous welfare reform of 1996 has drastically reduced those effects. She gives a good idea of how badly "welfare reform" has worked in practice, especially in this depression. As she reminds us, the main "welfare" program changed its name from Aid to Families to Dependent Children (AFDC) to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) with the 1996 reform. "Absent TANF reform, the central countercyclical institution propping up the welfare system these days is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (colloquially known as food stamps), which is used by about 46 million Americans." TANF inadequacy she explains like this:

“In 1994–95, for every 100 families with children in poverty, the AFDC program served 75 families,” researchers from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities concluded last September. “In 2008–09, only 28 families with children participated in TANF for every 100 families in poverty.” In Arkansas, that number was a mere 9 percent by the end of 2009; in Mississippi, 12 percent; in Alabama, 15 percent.

Moreover, throughout most of the South, benefit levels declined to one-fifth to one-tenth of the poverty line. In Mississippi, that meant that a family of four was averaging less than $200 a month in benefits. The decline in benefits isn’t, however, limited to the South. In all but two states, benefit levels today are below what they were in 1996 (and by 1996, most states had already been cutting the real value of their welfare benefits for a quarter-century), and in no state in the country does the maximum TANF benefit get a family above 50 percent of the federally defined poverty line.
Harold Meyerson, Seeing What No One Else Could See

A look back at Michael Harrington's book The Other America (1962) and how it helped greatly in elevating the country's consciousness of poverty in the Age of Affluence. It's a good reminder that the post-Great Depression prosperity of the United States created a new situation in the US where affluence was considered the norm and the poor had become a real minority. President Franklin Roosevelt in his Second Inaugural Address in 1937 could say, "I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished." But that was no longer the case in 1962. Much of the story of American politics in the last 50 years has to do with the implications of that change.

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