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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Reviving the War on Poverty?

The Christian Science Monitor publishes a commentary with a rallying cry: Let Katrina revive the war on poverty
Some 40 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson declared the War on Poverty. He urged Americans to come to the rescue of those who lived "on the outskirts of hope."
If it was a war, it was one the nation in large part lost. Last year, 12.7 percent of Americans fell below the official poverty line. That's up slightly from the year before and about the same as in 1968.

Today, many progressives and liberals hope the Katrina disaster will revive Johnson's poverty war. Many Americans were shocked and embarrassed by the horrific pictures of those - many of them African-American - unable to leave New Orleans because of their poverty, while the more prosperous - many of them white - fled in their cars.

"We may be at something of a tipping point here. It could be a teachable moment," says Michael Zweig, director of the Center for Study of Working Class Life at the State University of New York, Stony Brook.
It seems, no matter how much money we spend, we maintain about a figure of about 12% of the population below the poverty level. Others have studied the lessons we can learn from the long War (41 years), for example:
Exactly 40 years ago, the nation embarked on two huge federal initiatives aimed at improving the lot of African Americans: the War on Poverty and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The two programs, so different in their assumptions, turned out to be a giant natural experiment in social policy. Four decades later, with the results clearly in, we can confidently distinguish what works to uplift people from what doesn’t...All this was part of America’s decades-long experiment with putting into effect the whole 1960s program for liberating the poor: not just the War on Poverty’s generous welfare policies, but also leniency to criminals (so as not to “blame the victim”), lax educational standards aimed at not damaging ghetto kids’ self-esteem (which also subverted the War on Poverty’s Head Start program), and homeless policies based on the comical fiction that here was yet another class of victims of the system. When the results of such policies became unmistakably clear—the underclass, a crime wave, decaying cities—Americans, ever pragmatic and capable of learning from experience, did a U-turn, passing welfare reform and adopting tough-minded Giuliani-style policing in cities across the land. The result: a halving of the welfare rolls and the violent crime rate, and the lowest child-poverty rate ever.

The lesson on this 40th anniversary couldn’t be clearer. Freedom works; dependency doesn’t.
The effects of the Long War include the virtual destruction of the black family, as the remarkable Thomas Sowell noted:
The black family, which had survived centuries of slavery and discrimination, began rapidly disintegrating in the liberal welfare state that subsidized unwed pregnancy and changed welfare from an emergency rescue to a way of life.
I remember a beginning sociology course reading (back in 1966) that noted that the destruction of "slum neighborhoods" to make room for public housing also wiped out the small businesses of the area, many owned by minorities who served their neighbors and replaced them with...nothing. Thus, instead of allowing for an expanding middle class driven by business ownership and offering jobs to local residents, the result was either massive unemployment or the long commute of workers from the "Projects" to jobs that conferred no benefit to the immediate neighborhood of the workers. What businesses did venture into the area surrounding the Projects tended to be over-priced and exploitive of their monopoly position. This 1999 article posited the question, "Why the War on Poverty Failed" and provides the answer to the $5 trillion question in asserting that the problem lies in the erroneous premise on which the War was initiated,
Perhaps the best way to answer the question is to take a close look at the book that inspired the war on poverty, Michael Harrington’s The Other America, published in 1962. (Harrington died in 1989.) Possibly the most influential policy book in history, The Other America was cited again and again by the politicians, activists, and administrators who set up welfare programs in the 1960s. In it we find the fallacies that sent reformers down dark and tangled paths into today’s social tragedies.

Though social workers and welfare administrators embraced Harrington’s account, neither he nor they realized how distinctive, even bizarre, was the theory of poverty that it contained. Harrington’s premise was that poverty is a purely economic problem: the needy simply lack the material resources to lead productive, happy lives. Supply these resources, the theory runs, and you will have solved the problem of poverty. “The means are at hand,” declared Harrington, “to fulfill the age-old dream: poverty can now be abolished.”[2] This theme was repeated up and down the welfare establishment. Sargent Shriver, the administration’s leading anti-poverty warrior, told Congress that the nation had “both the resources and the know-how to eliminate grinding poverty in the United States.” President Lyndon Johnson echoed the claim. “For the first time in our history,” he declared, “it is possible to conquer poverty.”

To most people, these claims seemed incredibly na├»ve. While the state of neediness we call poverty does involve a lack of material resources, it also involves a mass of psychological and moral problems, including weak motivation, lack of trust in others, ignorance, irresponsibility, self-destructiveness, short-sightedness, alcoholism, drug addiction, promiscuity, and violence. To say that all these behavioral and psychological problems can be “abolished” seems a denial of the common-sense Biblical teaching that the poor will always be with us.
Well, to paraphrase President Reagan, "Here we go again!"

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