Saturday, April 28, 2007

American Prospect Special Issue on Poverty

The American Prospect has a special issue on poverty that was put together in time for a philanthropy conference in Seattle this weekend. Anyone who cares about these issues should take a look. I've made a PDF of this remarkable edition available for download here. Online subscriptions are just $15.

The capstone article is the Center for Law and Poverty's Mark Greenberg on why Americans are beginning to focus more on this issue, and the possibilities that exist now for meaningfully addressing poverty. It's remarkable to me that this article, and as far as I can tell in glancing it over quickly, the entire special issue, does not deal with homelessness per se at all. While numerous recent anti-poverty initiatives are mentioned by name, the drive to create Ten Year Plans to End Homelessness goes completely unmentioned.

Curious. While there is a glaring gap in this collection of articles in that there is no analysis of the criminal justice system, the expansion of the prison system, and the role that this plays in creating and maintaining racially disproportionate poverty, the magazine focuses entirely on structural solutions to poverty that help to rebuild a strong middle class.

Greenberg says the revival of interest in poverty stems from a number of sources: Katrina, and the spotlight that this placed on deep, persistent poverty in America; the growing awareness of globalization and what it means for the future, and increasing awareness of deepening inequality.
" In 2005, the top 20 percent of American households had 50.4 percent of the nation's income, while the bottom 20 percent had 3.4 percent -- the largest margin between top and bottom since this data series began, in 1967. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that between 2003 and 2004, the post-tax income of the bottom fifth rose by $200 a year, while that of the top fifth rose by $11,600, and post-tax income for the top 1 percent rose by $145,500. And the wealth gap is far more extreme, with the top 1 percent of households holding one-third of the nation's net worth, while the bottom 40 percent have less than one percent of the nation's net worth. This is the widest gap since the 1920s."

Greenberg points to a number of reasons for inaction, including the war, which has distracted us from focusing on a domestic agenda; our tendency to characterize poverty as being about "the other," and a racist tendency to be unconcerned with poverty among people of color and to engage in victim blaming; and finally, this, which called out our tendency to focus on the technical solutions as opposed to the big picture:
"At the same time, a single-minded focus on who is above or below the poverty line misses the bigger story of what is happening in the U.S. economy, and leads to focusing on how to "fix" the poor -- instead of asking why our social and economic institutions result in millions of workers and their families living paycheck to paycheck, or worse."

Our renewed national commitment to ending poverty, says Greenberg, would focus on "an increased minimum wage, more income-support measures such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, a renewed focus on unionization, a framework of lifelong learning, health-care reform, child-care assistance for all who need it, comprehensive immigration reform, initiatives to help underemployed groups get in or back into the workforce, and strategies to promote asset building, among others."

Numerous other authors suggest a similar list of priorities.

Robert Kuttner reminds us that "programs for the poor are poor programs" and advocates for a universal approach to solving poverty that addresses the concerns of the broad middle. Social security delivers for everyone and as a result is politically protected. Programs that follow in this mold that should be broadened include Medicare, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Headstart and universal prekindergarten.
"The children of the working middle class may not face the same profound risks as the children of the poor. But there has not been a time since the Great Depression when the American middle class had more economic vulnerabilities in common with the poor. Politically, the way to find the resources to alleviate poverty is to create a broad coalition of all Americans who are a few paychecks away from poverty, with good social investments that are universal. To end poverty, we need to imagine a middle-class America, where to work is to earn a decent living, and to be born is to have decent life chances."
In Redeeming Public Remedy, Michael Lipsky and Dianne Stewart say that the ideal of minimal government intervention with no taxes is on the decline, and that as the pendulum swings back from the right, Americans are looking for a greater government role in reducing poverty. Activists, they say, need to challenge the idea of limited government being the best government, because the time is right and people are open to an expanded role. Government should mitigate the excesses of the market and create institutions that work toward the common good.

"Our research findings are just words on the page until leaders not only embrace a more complete understanding of the role of government in national development but also incorporate that understanding into their communications. Community leaders need to locate their particular issues within a broad perspective on government and the public interest. Over time, the incorporation of these insights in political language will increase popular receptivity to public initiatives.

This may be easier said than done, however. Leaders with commitments to particular policies or institutions have to abandon the "silo" approach of seeking support for their particular policy areas, and they have to work with others to expand resources for a broad range of programs, not just their own. ... Policy experts must truly communicate with citizens who have little interest in policy minutiae, and who instead want to know where to locate a subject in their hierarchy of values."

In Wages and the Social Contract, Thomas Kochan says that the social contract that provided a fair day's pay for a fair day's work broke down after the 70s. This excellent historic analysis holds that while deindustrialization and so forth have played a role in the decline of wages, the larger factors have been government collusion in undermining the bargaining power of labor, the breakdown of "equity norms" that has allowed the ratio of worker to CEO compensation to reach absurd levels, and government deregulation leading to destructive price competition.

Kochan calls for a significant boost in the minimum wage, a resurgence of labor, and for New Deal Like policies to increase employment and productivity
"Steady progress requires engaging government, business, and labor efforts to build a new social contract tailored to today's economy and workforce. The greater instability of today's job market requires more social protections, not fewer. At the heart of a new social contract that fights poverty and raises wages is a national strategy to reconnect rising productivity, rising wages, and norms of fairness inside the corporation."
Tamara Draut, Author of Strapped: Why America's 20 and 30-somethings Can't Get Ahead, writes about how the deregulation of lending markets has led to a bonanza of high interest loans to low and middle income people, and how the debt trap for both has become increasingly similar.
"The unleashing of exorbitantly priced credit coincided with two other important trends: the steady decline in earnings power of low-income households and the shredding of our public safety net. As already strapped low-income households found themselves falling further behind, they also found their mailboxes stuffed with rescue offers of easy and fast credit. And in low-income neighborhoods, storefronts selling fast and expensive loans are now as plentiful as McDonalds selling fast and cheap food."
While we need to target this lending industry for reform with increased scrutiny and demands for more responsible practices, she says, that must coincide with other changes as well:

The deeper cure for debt as a safety net is to increase earnings and social benefits for the working poor, so that low-income families have the opportunity to move beyond mere subsistence living. That means raising the minimum wage, tearing down barriers to union organizing, providing universal health care, and creating more incentives in the tax code to help these families save and build wealth."

In another truly remarkable article on charity, justice, and the role of faith communities, Ernesto Cortés Jr. the Southwest regional director of the Industrial Areas Foundation, describes the role of faith communities in his area in creating structural change. While the role of the federal government must be altered he says,

"... given the massive deficits generated by the Bush administration's tax cuts, the financial markets are unlikely to allow any Congress -- Democrat or Republican -- to come to the rescue in any meaningful way anytime soon. To change that reality, we need to create powerful local and statewide constituencies for both programs at the community level and national policy changes to make possible the resurgence of a genuine middle class."

The role of the faith community in this is clear, and it goes far beyond the simple delivery of charity. This deserves to be quoted at length:
"Notwithstanding the importance of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked as we are challenged to do in Matthew 25, the church has a far more prophetic and transformative role to play in the larger social order today. Historically the role of congregation and church has been to create communities of obligation, participation, and transformation -- of konia (the formation of community and fellow feeling through participation).

The challenge of our faith traditions is to understand that our moral universe cannot include only those who look like us, talk like us, or live like us. When our institutions of faith are at their best, they help people get inside one another's moral universe by sharing stories and experiences -- and by so doing, beginning to develop political friendships, or philia.

Developing philia enables people to understand that developing and sustaining their own self-interest requires them to be concerned with the self-interest of others. This doesn't happen naturally, but only through institutions that develop the relational context in which people begin to understand that what's needed is a public-education system that enables their children and other people's children to succeed alike."

Another article of particular interest in this issue in Alan Jenkins' treatment of race and poverty in America, the widening gap, the reasons it exists, and the interest that we all share in addressing these issues. One especially interesting idea is that development and community impact needs to be firmly linked.

"Finally, we must begin planning for opportunity in the way we design metropolitan regions, transportation systems, housing, hospitals, and schools. That means, for example, creating incentives for mixed-income neighborhoods that are well-publicized and truly open to people of all races and backgrounds.

A particularly promising approach involves requiring an "opportunity impact statement" when public funds are to be used for development projects. The statement would explain, for example, whether a new highway will connect low-income communities to good jobs and schools, or serve only affluent communities. It would detail where and how job opportunities would flow from the project, and whether different communities would share the burden of environmental and other effects (rather than having the project reinforce traditional patterns of inequality). It would measure not only a project's expected effect on poverty but on opportunity for all."
There's plenty more. This issue of The American Prospect, once again, available for PDF download here, is required reading for anyone concerned with these issues.

No comments: