Poverty and Policy in the NYT

Paul Tough’s New York Times Magazine piece on Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood, a mostly African-American area of the far South Side that has fallen on the kind of hard times that are common to post-industrial neighborhoods across the nation, reveals a great deal about how American poverty policy works, though perhaps not entirely in the ways he intended. Tough’s hook for the article was that Barack Obama’s brief career as a community organizer found him working in and near Roseland. Quoting Dreams From My Father, Tough posits that Roseland was a pivotal experience for Obama.

If any American president might have been expected to focus his attention on Roseland and its problems, it would be Barack Obama. The neighborhood, as it happens, played a critical role in Obama’s personal and political history. As a young community organizer, he worked in Roseland and at a nearby low-rise housing project called Altgeld Gardens for three years in the late 1980s; it was in these communities, Obama said in the speech announcing his presidential run, that he “received the best education I ever had.” And when he finally left Roseland, for Harvard Law School and a political career, he did so, he said, to gain the knowledge and the resources that would allow him to eventually return and tackle the neighborhood’s problems anew.

For Tough, then, the important questions stem from the continuity of poverty in Roseland and the rest of the nation, despite the election of a president who was familiar with the neighborhood and pledged to do something to help. Tough sees a disjunction: Obama, in a long tradition of liberal idealism, sought greater power to help Roseland, but somehow failed to deliver enough of that help to make a difference.

I would suggest quite the opposite. Rather than disjunctions, Roseland helps us to understand ideological threads that have been continuous for four decades of thinking, talking, and acting about poverty. The structure of this article as a narrative shows what I mean. Tough makes a sensible proposition in the second paragraph:

Fifty years ago, Roseland was a prosperous part of Chicago, home to thousands of blue-collar workers, most of them white, employed by the South Side’s many steel and manufacturing plants. But the plants closed long ago, the white residents all moved away and Roseland has become one of the worst-off parts of the city by just about every measure you can think of: unemployment rate, dropout rate, murder rate or just the barren, empty feel of the streets.

Structural transformation of the economy from industrial to post-industrial results in the vanishing of low-skilled and moderately-skilled work. Racism-driven migration out of the neighborhood jibes with the real estate market to depress values and erode the wealth of residents. Without wages coming in or equity wealth to draw on, the neighborhood gets and stays poor, and those with means, whether whites or the black middle class, move out. And, since Roseland is in many regards a modal neighborhood for the City of Big Shoulders (and industrial cities across the United States), this process replicated throughout the city and nation means that property taxes for schools crater, and public schools cease to be a vehicle for even a limited kind of social mobility. It’s a rare thing when complex problems have relatively simple explanations.

So, one would think that the remainder of the article might focus on the fundamental problems of the job and housing markets (i.e. that the market provides insufficient quantity and quality of both) ; or the funding of sufficient public education; or the cultural problem that the humanity and citizenship of African Americans and other racial minorities is still incompletely recognized, particularly by white Americans who now perceive themselves as the principal victims of racism.

But you can probably guess from the fact that I’m blogging a response that Tough’s piece doesn’t go there. I’m less concerned with bashing Tough, who deserves some credit as a journalist for painting a rich picture of the ways that multiple forms of disadvantage link up to create cascading quality of life problems for the poor, who find themselves in communities that are stripped not just of wealth, but of opportunity too (pdf). And he paints a compelling portrait of Steven Gates, a social worker who seems as beaten down by the grind as the troubled youths he mentors. The problem lies in the ideas that Tough has close at hand to explain why Roseland is, to be blunt, so messed up. Most of the social science he cites amounts to an effort to ignore the core of the problem—an economy that is not at all organized to create full employment or living wages, and a political culture of institutional racism that works to ensure that places like Roseland have borne and will continue to bear the brunt of this systemic failure–in favor of endogenous explanations rooted in family structure and even neurobiology that shift attention from the social and historical process of impoverishment to the individual (or familial) phenomenon of poor people. Unfortunately, these ahistorical ideas aren’t just close at hand to Tough. They’re close at hand for some pretty influential policymakers too, Barack Obama among them.

Tough follows Roseland native Steve Gates, who works in youth outreach for an organization called the Youth Advocacy Program (YAP), through the streets, schools, precinct houses, hospitals and funeral homes of Chicago’s far South Side, where he encounters a tragic roster of problems in his efforts to keep at-risk youth on the straight and narrow, wondering along with Gates whether his daily grind is the best or only solution:

The big question that Gates wrestled with every day — how do you help young people growing up in poverty to succeed? — was not too long ago a major focus of public debate in the United States. During the Johnson administration, the place to be for smart, ambitious young people in Washington was the Office of Economic Opportunity, the command center for the War on Poverty. In the 1990s, Washington once again saw a robust public discussion of poverty, much of it centered on the issue of welfare reform.

In a political climate where the right generally eschews thinking at all about poverty in favor of sloganeering and moralizing, Tough seems to be falling into a trap of taking it as an unalloyed good that powerful people are thinking about poverty at all. Here’s where we have to get historical,though. It’s not enough that people in high places think and talk about poverty. What they think, say, and do matters considerably. Much more than 31 years separate the War on Poverty from the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act signed by Bill Clinton in 1996. These two moments are equivalent only in the sense that they reflected the most powerful people in the United States attempting to set public policy to deal with poverty according to their understandings of the problem. The ideas and policies that flowed from each moment reflect a profound rightward shift in thought and policy that has impacted the prevalence and experience of poverty in the United States.

So, while Tough reports the factually true statement that

In 1966, at the height of the War on Poverty, the poverty rate was just under 15 percent of the population; in 2010, the most recent year for which data is available, it was 15.1 percent.

He omits some other salient information, including the poverty rates in intervening years. Poverty was not, in fact, constant.

Although this dual-line graph compresses the slopes of the downward trend beginning in the mid-1960s and the upward trend in the early 1980s, figures don’t lie: the War On Poverty made a significant dent in the U.S. poverty rate. It also made a more specific intervention salient to this article and to the work that Steven Gates is doing in Roseland: it reduced the numbers and percentage of children living in poverty.

While children under 18 will always comprise a high proportion of people in poverty (their presence in a household increases the denominator but not the numerator of dollars per member since, at least for now, child labor remains illegal), the War on Poverty made a significant dent in the number of children living in poverty. Critics will point out that the injection of AFDC payments into mother-headed households lowered the number of households under the poverty line, to which I’d answer: that was the point. Tough goes on to survey a range of  interdisciplinary research on poverty, encompassing brain development, the effects of familial stresses caused by poverty, and the impact of poverty on early school achievement. In summary, he concludes

the way we direct services to poor children would work better if we did more or less the opposite of what we’re doing today.

The number of children in extreme poverty grew in 1990s and 2000s because of shifts in antipoverty policy:

This shift is mostly the result of a series of legislative changes in the 1990s meant to encourage work among the poor — among them the expansion of the earned-income tax credit and a law permitting children of single mothers working low-wage jobs to be covered by Medicaid. At the same time, government support for nonworking poor families began to drop sharply. The welfare-reform law passed by Congress in 1996 continued to provide cash aid to some poor families but did so with stringent requirements that adults who received that aid — mostly single mothers — either be working or actively looking for work. Over the last two decades, cash aid shrank steadily, and in many states, it has now all but disappeared. In Wyoming, just 314 families currently receive cash welfare. Illinois’s caseload fell by 86 percent from 1997 to 2011. In Georgia, in 1996, more than 90 percent of poor families received cash aid. Now 8 percent of them do.

What struck me was the length of the detour through a description of the lives of Roseland’s poor that separated Tough’s discussion of historical poverty rates and his discussion of the impact of post-1990s reforms.Why write that way?  Describing the deficiencies of poor communities and poor people is, I think, compulsory in any discussion of poverty policy.

Michael Katz’s important work shows conclusively that the poor have long been stigmatized in American political culture, and that while directly bashing the poor has been common, lamenting the futility of efforts to to help them has been the more important political tool, in that it has allowed liberals to imagine themselves protecting the best interests of poor people by dismantling the welfare state.

Alice O’Connor’s work in policy history covers more contemporary ground, and does much more to expose the intellectual production of anti-poor stigma as a concrete strategy. What I’ve found most compelling in her analysis of the rise of right-wing think tanks (see here for her take on the Manhattan Institute–“The Privatized City: The Manhattan Institute, the Urban Crisis, and the Conservative Counterrevolution in New York.” Journal of Urban History 34, no. 2 (January 1, 2008): 333–353.) is the way that she connects the dots between nominally economic or fiscal elements of conservatism (tax cutting, slashing spending on social welfare and services), the cultural politics of resentment (against gays and lesbians, minorities, and feminists), and the role of the social space of the city (in this case, principally 1970s and 1980s New York) as a foil for a rightist, authoritarian, and neoliberal vision of society. O’Connor credits the Manhattan Institute for its craft–it created a circuit of self-referential political arguments that could be encapsulated in a set of urban symbols, so that

New York, in the well-worn conservative phraseology, became a showcase for “the billions of dollars that made things worse,” as well as for the broader moral degeneration of post-1960s American culture.

Which brings us back to William Julius Wilson, whose ideas are the keystone of the policies under review here. Tough writes of The Truly Disadvantaged that

There is probably no book that did more to explain the changes that were taking place in neighborhoods like Roseland.

It’s important to clarify what “explain” means in this context. It’s quite debatable whether Wilson was the best explainer of urban poverty, if explaining meant constructing the best explanation for a phenomenon. But Wilson was certainly the most successful at offering an account of causes that jibed with a prevailing political-economic consensus in neoliberalizing America as the ideas produced by the Manhattan Institute and other think tanks shifted toward the mainstream, to the point that (Even the Liberal) Brookings Institution is on board.

Wilson identified a major shift in American poverty at that time. Sociologists define a neighborhood as being in “extreme poverty” if 40 percent or more residents are poor, and Wilson showed that from 1970 to 1980 in the five largest American cities, the number of poor people living in extreme poverty almost tripled. That degree of concentrated poverty, Wilson wrote, was extraordinarily toxic, especially to children, and it led, in neighborhoods like Roseland, to “an exponential increase in related forms of social dislocation.”

Although criticism Wilson took over this 1987 book prodded him to revisit the matter of employment in When Work Disappears, his thesis that the internal social dynamics of high-poverty communities, were the crucial explanatory mechanism for a lack of social mobility among the urban poor nonetheless hit a political sweet spot for the rising New Democrats. Wilson was at pains to stress that he didn’t feel the poor were necessarily inferior, congenitally incapable of improving their lot, or morally undeserving of material sufficiency or social respect. Charles Murray and other right-wing think tank ideologues were there for that. But he really didn’t have to engage in the malignant racist pseudoscience of Murray and Richard Herrnstein to do considerable damage to the interests of the poor, because his work justified Bill Clinton’s “centrist” accommodation to conservative plans to “end welfare as we know it.” Barack Obama, in his preferred self-presentation as a post-partisan, centrist, pragmatist fully embraced Wilson’s ideas on the campaign trail in 2008:

While Obama expressed support in the speech for some of the traditional, broad-brush Democratic antipoverty policies — raising the minimum wage, strengthening unions, expanding access to health care, improving educational opportunity — his focus was on the need for new solutions to concentrated urban poverty, which he described as “the cause that led me to a life of public service almost 25 years ago.”

With a nod to the ideas of William Julius Wilson, Obama made the case that inner-city poverty is qualitatively different from other strains of poverty. “What’s most overwhelming about urban poverty is that it’s so difficult to escape,” he said. “It’s isolating, and it’s everywhere.” Addressing this kind of poverty was neither simple nor straightforward, Obama said. “If poverty is a disease that infects an entire community in the form of unemployment and violence, failing schools and broken homes, then we can’t just treat those symptoms in isolation. We have to heal that entire community.”

What that has meant in practice is that communities targeted for improvement are analyzed solely in terms of endogenous factors. While Tough cites Obama’s campaign promises to tackle poverty approvingly, it’s worth parsing his message much more closely than Tough does:

At its center was a proposal to expand the work of Geoffrey Canada and his organization, the Harlem Children’s Zone, which takes an intensive and comprehensive approach to child development in a 97-block high-poverty neighborhood in central Harlem, providing poor children with not just high-quality charter schools but also parenting programs, preschools, a medical clinic, a farmers’ market, family counseling and help with college applications. (My 2008 book, “Whatever It Takes,” is a profile of Canada and a history of the Children’s Zone.)

There is little doubt that poor communities benefit from some of these things (with the jury still emphatically out on charter schools). But the focus on farmer’s markets and clinics underscores the fact that this sort of antipoverty thinking adopts a very particular lens, that of the deficiencies within the neighborhood. Systemic factors originating or operating outside those 97 blocks are simply assumed out of existence. It’s akin to treating lung cancer with chemotherapy while still sending the patient to work in an asbestos mine.

But within this ideological framework, it’s possible for theoreticaly serious and influential people to continue their efforts to improve the poor rather than eradicating poverty. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the field of education, where a cohort of Chicago “reformers” is driving the national discussion. Tough quotes Education Secretary Arne Duncan

“What I fundamentally believe — and what the president believes,” Duncan told me, “is that the only way to end poverty is through education.”

Statements like this have such resonance with common sense that it is easy to miss their ideological character. As boosterism for a particular set of reforms organized around privatization and parental involvement, such talk deflects attention from public institutions and collective provision to a model in which every family is responsible for their own outcomes. This is not a model that is built for a 100% success rate.

But there is a growing concern in education-policy circles that those reforms — like charter schools that require a significant level of parental involvement — tend to have a much higher success rate with better-off low-income students, the ones who come from more stable and capable homes.

The confusion in Tough’s article, and the reason why he takes a conflicted tone, is that he is trying to reconcile Arne Duncan’s vision of reform with the struggles faced by Steve Gates, whose workaday life is quite literally trying to plug the holes in neoliberal social policy.

Bob Jessop has written insightfully on the shift in urban governance from the precepts of a strong public sector and a minimal social safety net to what he calls the “Shumpeterian Workfare Postnational Regime” (“Liberalism, Neoliberalism, and Urban Governance: A State-Theoretical Perspective.” Antipode 34, no. 3 (2002): 459-460). “SWPR” is a mouthful even in acronym form; the crucial elements with regard to poverty are the substitution of mandatory low-wage work for public assistance combined with “postnational” offshoring of manufacturing and other traditional sources of living wages. “Shumpeterian” denotes the idea of creative destruction, by which capital realizes new opportunities for profit by dismantling old arrangements (swapping AFDC for workfare, public schools for privately run charters, voucherizing housing assistance, or breaking public employee pension contracts for 401k plans), and “regime” denotes the coalition of political actors inside and outside of government who advance this destruction, as well as the ideas they share in common and around which they mobilize and seek to win support.

William Julius Wilson has been arguably the thinker most essential to the rise of the SWPR in the United States. The critical deception that Wilsonian culture of poverty social science commits is one of scale. While the concentrated neighborhood poverty that Wilson observed appears to be a narrowly parochial phenomenon, to use Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s infamous phrase, a “tangle of pathologies” present in poor neighborhoods. historians have begun to recognize how that spatial pattern has been produced at the metropolitan scale, with Bob Self’s terrific American Babylon and Colin Gordon’s Mapping Decline being the most notable accounts in terms of the development of industrial and real estate wealth in suburban Oakland and Saint Louis respectively at the direct expense of central neighborhoods, and works like Matt Lassiter’s The Silent Majority and Kevin Kruse’s White Flight describing the political and cultural formations in American suburbs that encouraged and defended this pattern, making it seem natural, normal, and, crucially, not changeable through redistributive politics.

The right has always seized on Barack Obama’s past as a community organizer as evidence of what they imagine to be his radicalism (Obama has strategically encouraged this interpretation in his own writings and speeches). But while the community organizing of Saul Alinsky and the Poor People’s Movements chronicled by Piven and Cloward was based on the premise that a neighborhood could organize to make big shots outside the neighborhood–in City Hall and the downtown boardrooms–deliver material or political goods to the community, Tough makes it depressingly clear that the kind of organizing that has been going on under the banner of Wilson’s scholarship for decades has been inward-looking, aimed at improving the poor themselves to the point where they might be ready not to be poor any more.

The upshot? When even well-intentioned writers like Tough write about poverty, they get boxed in to a frame of reference that leads to despair.

Americans know how to use their government to remediate a certain kind of poverty. If a family does not have enough food to eat or money to survive, we know how to issue food stamps or cut a check.

[Ed: this is precisely the kind of aid that we do less and less of these days, despite the fact that it is historically the one sure-fire method to make poor people less poor.]

But when children are growing up in a home without the kind of stability and support and order that they need to succeed in life, Americans don’t always know — and certainly don’t always agree — on what we want the government to do. We generally agree that we want the government to help increase opportunity and social mobility.But we don’t like the idea of the government meddling in the home lives of private families. And so we’re in a dilemma: the biggest factor holding back social mobility for poor children may be one we don’t have a good strategy to solve — and it may be one we don’t feel comfortable even addressing at all.

Tough is right that there’s a problem we’re not addressing, but wrong about what it is. The way we talk about poor communities obscures the fact that those communities are created by a political and economic system that takes as a baseline assumption that not all people in a society will be adequately provided for. Once we let that assumption pass, we’re just arguing about the appropriate limit of non-provision.

Newspapers present an interesting view to ruling ideology through the stories they cover and the juxtaposition of  those stories without overt intent or purpose. The front page of the same Sunday edition of the Times announced with an objective sense of inevitability that all of our skilled (read: well-paid) manufacturing work will soon be done by robots. One perspective, held by this blog, is that except for a few folks on the North Shore who will finance and design those robots, we are all Roseland, whether we choose to accept it or to continue in a set of delusions embedded in our social thought and policy that reassure the more comfortable among us by explaining what’s wrong with the poor. There is another perspective that holds there is absolutely no connection to be drawn between the two of these stories, and that those of our children who are educated for success, entrepreneurialism, and STEM fields will all prosper. Just ask Arne Duncan or Barack Obama.

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9 comments on “Poverty and Policy in the NYT

  1. Nora says:

    I know I’m biased, but this is awesome. Also: Paul Farmer. Pathologies of Power, have you read that? It’s brilliant and a great read.

  2. Nora says:

    It’s one of my favorite books ever.

  3. […] work of asserting the kind of  neoliberal boilerplate about education reform and poverty that, I’ve noted before, acknowledges selective parts of the problem (school dysfunction, family stress, deindustrialized […]

  4. […] the Moynihan Report and the Kerner Commission Report, along with the influential studies of William Julius Wilson, have encouraged Americans to figure poverty as a spatial and particularly urban […]

  5. […] eager to see how this edition addresses the neoliberal moment of Obama’s (mostly notional) urban policy, the ongoing neocon culture war against […]

  6. […] I’d like to take this opportunity to announce that I’ve seen the light. My critiques of market-based development, political fragmentation, and historically institutionalized racism in metropolitan America are way off base. In fact, suburban sprawl is the natural and ideal state of affairs, and springs directly from the clearly expressed rational will of every human being (except liberal city planners). Furthermore, racism has no relationship to economic opportunity, political power, or social outcomes. The metropolitan poor are not victims of historical processes put in motion to serve interests other than their own, but of their own defects. […]

  7. […] to reverse the tendency of policy interventions to normalize white/affluent segregation and focus intervention on the deficiencies of the minority poor. Semuels […]

  8. […] have sought to regulate, reform, or renew urban spaces and communities (I’ve touched on that here, for […]

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