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Tuesday, March 2

Conservative Poverty  

I remember some all night bull sessions in college where some friends and I would chew the fat on one issue or another in an attempt to arrive at a workable theory (if not a solution) on how to cope with one or another of the world's ills. Today's David Brooks column, in a return to the drivel that was fuelling his descent before his prior column, rails against liberals for wanting to assist the poor. In David's world any time a Democrat mentions assisting the poor he means welfare. And all Democrats have the same opinion. Try to follow his logic.
Edwards talks about poverty in economic terms. He vows to bring jobs back to poor areas and restrict trade to protect industries. He suggests that if we could take money from the rich and special interests, there'd be more for the underprivileged. This kind of talk is descended from Marxist theory, which holds that we live in the thrall of economic conditions. What the poor primarily need is more money, the theory goes. The core assumption is that economic forces determine culture and shape behavior. As William Julius Wilson wrote in "The Truly Disadvantaged," "If ghetto underclass minorities have limited aspirations, a hedonistic orientation toward life or lack of plans for the future, such outlooks ultimately are the result of restricted opportunities and feelings of resignation originating from bitter personal experiences and a bleak future."
John Edwards = Karl Marx = William Julius Wilson Does John Edwards agree with Prof. Williams? Who knows? I don't, and Brooks offers no evidence that he knows.
We've now had a 40-year experiment to determine which side is right, and while both arguments have merit, it's clear the conservatives have a more accurate view of poverty. For decades welfare programs funneled money to the disadvantaged, but families dissolved and poverty rates remained stubbornly high. Then the nation switched tack in the mid-1990's, embracing policies that demanded work. Many liberals made a series of horrifying predictions about what welfare reform would do to the poor. These predictions, based on the paleoliberal understanding of poverty, were extravagantly wrong.
Is that true? Did the Great Society programs fail to alleviate the suffering of the poor? Did poverty rates remain stubbornly high? Not according to the National Poverty Center.
In the late 1950s, the poverty rate for the total U.S. population was 22.4 percent, or approximately 39.5 million individuals. These numbers declined steadily throughout the 1960s, reaching a low of 12.1 percent, or 24.1 million individuals, by 1969. For the next decade, the poverty rate fluctuated between 11.1 and 12.6 percent, but began to rise steadily again in 1980. By 1983, the number of poor individuals had risen to 35.3 million individuals, or 15.2 percent of the population. For the next ten years, the poverty rate remained above 12.8 percent, and had climbed to 15.1 percent, or 39.3 million individuals, by 1993. The rate declined dramatically for the remainder of the decade, to 11.3 percent by 2000, before rising slightly in 2001, to 11.7 percent.
So it would seem that from the Great Society (I'll peg the start of that in 1964 with the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964) until 1980 we had pretty good luck getting the poverty rate down and keeping it there. Then with Ronald Reagan ("Welfare Queens") the poverty rate heads north and stays there until the late 1990's. So did the Great Society fail? Do conservatives have a more accurate view of poverty? The statistics don't seem to think so. Brooks then jumps through hoops trying to argue that it is behavior, not opportunity, that keeps all the poor in that state. If they just wanted it bad enough, they wouldn't be poor anymore. Of course, they don't seem to be able to do this. Brooks then back away from the behavior argument.
There are as many kinds of poverty as there are poor people. As David K. Shipler writes in his wonderfully observant new book, "The Working Poor," it takes emotional dexterity to climb out of poverty, as well as job skills. The poor often have "less agility to navigate around the pitfalls of a frenetic world driven by technology and competition."
Sounds to me like this wonderfully observant book is noting that the poor live, "in the thrall of economic conditions." Marxist pig. Brooks finally throws up his hands and says everyone's right.
While conservatives were right about the basic nature of poverty, liberals are right when they point out that simply getting people off welfare and into the world of work is not enough. Welfare reform means more single mothers are working, but they are having a hard time making progress into the middle class. We're going to need support programs to complete the successes of the 1990's.
Support programs? WTF? Brooks's whole argument is that liberals are wrong that the poor need support programs. What they need is a stiff upper lip. That's the way out of poverty! Conservatives have spent two decades poisoning (and draining) the well of support programs. Now Brooks wants them back? How did this guy get a gig writing for the NY Times? Honestly.


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