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Down and out.

In the thirties and again in the sixties, Americans answered the call to fight sweeping wars on poverty. Here's why the battle seems so passionless today

For a long time now, almost everybody has assumed that, because of the New Deal's social legislation and - more important - the prosperity we have enjoyed since 1940, mass poverty no longer exists in this country... [But] in the last year, we seem to have suddenly awakened, rubbing our eyes like Rip van Winkle, to the fact that mass poverty persists, and that it is one of our two gravest social problems. (The other is related: While only 11 percent of our population is non-white, 25 percent of our poor are.)

President Kennedy read this in the January 19, 1963, New Yorker, in a long review by the critic Dwight Macdonald of Michael Harrington's book The Other America. The book and the review together forced a sea change in American attitudes toward the poor. Just five years earlier, in 1958, John Kenneth Galbraith had declared poverty no longer "a massive affliction [but] more nearly an afterthought," and nobody thought to contradict him until Harrington, a socialist journalist, came along.

The Harrington/Macdonald case convinced Kennedy, who had first witnessed large scale poverty in Appalachia during his 1960 West Virginia primary campaign. An antipoverty program was being drafted when the president was murdered, and Lyndon Johnson quickly picked up the standard. "That's my kind of program," he said. What Harrington started turned liberals on to the poverty cause like no other public effort since the New Deal. The sixties' currents, for example, took Jay Rockefeller first to the Peace Corps then to West Virginia to work in antipoverty causes; they also interested people like Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of the president and wife of Sargent Shriver, in juvenile delinquency.

Today, 30 years later, the problem is not that the affluent don't know the poor exist but that poverty now seems all too familiar and solutions all too elusive. For those waiting for poverty to become chic again - another Harrington, another New Frontier/Great Society intellectual circle, another crusade - the truth is the poor frustrate most Americans. While 76 percent of voters told Gallup in 1992 that poverty and homelessness were "very important" issues, the percentage who believe government can have a positive impact has fallen from 74 percent in 1960 to 24 percent today. Sixty-five percent are unwilling to pay $200 more a year in taxes for "assisting low-income families." This spring, 66 percent told NBC News/Wall Street Journal pollsters that they would like to see cuts in welfare spending.

Thirty-five million Americans live below the poverty line, and 14 million of them (62 percent of whom are non-white) are on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the government's least popular program. The number of poor (defined as an annual income of less than $14,228 for a family of three) rose in 1992; one out of every four American children now live in poverty. While Clinton has expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit (in effect raising a $4.35-an-hour job to a $6-an-hour job) and is seeking universal health insurance - things that will help millions of the working poor - welfare recipients increased 68 percent between 1970 and 1993, especially swelling in times of economic stress. On this most enduring and aggravating piece of the poverty problem - welfare Clinton's reformers are fuzzy on how they are going to pay for moving people from welfare to work after the promised Clinton two-year limit on AFDC benefits ends.

So don't be fooled by the campaign rage for welfare reform from California to Wisconsin to New Jersey. On the stump, "welfare reform" is a euphemism for cutting spending, and no one who is serious about really solving the problem thinks it can be done for less than double-digit billions. How did we come to this pass of public cynicism and political skittishness? And how do we get out of it?

* Unlike the last two eras of concern for poverty - the thirties and the sixties - the middle and upper middle classes don't know poor people.

Though it is difficult to recall now, only recently has America come to think of a "culture of poverty" - a phrase coined in 1959 by Oscar Lewis - or of a permanent "under-class" - a term popularized by Ken Auletta in a landmark 1982 book. How, in the thirties and early forties, did FDR rally support for his social legislation? For one, the democratic effects of the Great Depression meant the middle class was more likely to know people who were poor or even to be poor themselves, however temporarily. In the years after World War 1, 2.5 million people left the nation's farms for county seats and big cities but kept up with relatives and old friends who remained in the impoverished countryside. In fact, 68 percent of all families were below the poverty line in the mid-thirties. Harper Lee's description of Maycomb, her fictional Alabama county in To Kill a Mockingbird, gives a sense of what life circa 1933 was like: "There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with. . . But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told it had nothing to fear but fear itself." Consider Atticus Finch, a Maycomb lawyer and himself the first generation to leave the family farm, as he explains to his children, Scout and Jem, why Mr. Cunningham, a farmer/client, pays him in stovewood, hickory nuts, and crates of turnip greens:

"Why does he pay you like that?" I asked.

"Because that's the only way he can pay me. He has no money."

"Are we poor, Atticus?"

Atticus nodded. "We are indeed."

Jem's nose wrinkled. "Are we as poor as the Cunninghams?"

"Not exactly. The Cunninghams are country folks, and the crash hit them the hardest." Atticus said professional people were poor because the farmers were poor. As Maycomb County was farm country, nickels and dimes were hard to come by for doctors and dentists and lawyers.

The point is that the children of the town lawyer knew the Cunninghams, went to school with the Cunningham children, and suffered through the same general experience of the crash. The poor were not thought of then as a separate, problematic class but as people down on their luck. Not to oversentimentalize the thirties, but there is little doubt that because of the geographic and social proximity of the well-off and the poor, because of almost universally used public schools, and because of the universality of the Depression, Americans knew people from differing backgrounds and with differing bank balances more than Americans do now. Today, however, towns and neighborhoods and suburbs are decisively isolated not only by race (this was of course true in the thirties and forties) but by income as well. Working class families are squeezed out of high priced suburbs as better off families secede to their own neighborhoods. And at mid-century, two books - John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, accompanied by Walker Evans' photographs of poverty - generated sympathy among those few people who had no firsthand experience with the poor.

The good news is that the New Deal and the war economy dramatically reduced the percentage of families living in poverty from the forties onward. From 1936 to 1960, the poverty rate fell from 68 percent to 22 percent, then kept falling through the sixties. (It's now back up to 14.5 percent.) Still, the world in which Johnson launched the War on Poverty had some of the democratic, empathetic atmosphere of the thirties.

For blacks and whites, the country continued to be basically united by the bonds of public education and military service through the sixties. So even if the poor, as Harrington said, constituted a separate country ("The Other America"), Johnson was able to kick off a huge federal effort with public support based on faith in a government that had in the recent past defeated the Depression and Hitler and overseen the postwar economic expansion. In 1965, Gallup found that only 4 percent of the country mentioned the antipoverty program as something they disliked about LBJ's administration, compared to 16 percent for civil rights and 12 percent for Vietnam.

* The poor are less obviously deserving today than they used to be.

Steinbeck's Joads weren't criminals or drug addicts; disproportionate numbers of poor people today are criminals or drug addicts. Victims of the Depression or the sharecroppers who flooded the North after World War II could justifiably be portrayed as victims of upheaval. But today, some serious measure of responsibility for the poor and their sorrows clearly lies with the poor. Housing projects become nightmares; inner city schools become war zones; the drug trade becomes the small business of choice.

The causes of social disintegration are vast and complicated, but what we agree is bad - out-of-wedlock births, welfare dependency, crime, dropping out of school, and the susceptibility of subsequent generations to repeat the cycle - all are forms of self-destructive behavior much in evidence in poor neighborhoods. The victims? The law-abiding poor in cities who live in danger because of their neighbors' behavior and who would have been helped by fairer taxes and more public works jobs than the political climate, dominated by images of the underclass, allowed. In a moving report of life in a Washington housing project this fall, The Washington Post captured these ironies of inner city life well: "Here live the still striving or already defeated poor, the drug abusers and drug dealers. Almost everyone has a brother, a sister, a mother, a father, a cousin or a nephew who has been killed, wounded, or jailed." Yet why were the reporters out on the streets to begin with? Because just days before, a four-year-old girl, Launice Smith, was killed by a gunshot to the head while at an elementary school football game. Sympathy for the child, while real, is also submerged by anger at the chaotic gun and drug and gang culture that killed her. And frustration results.

The cycle is vicious. According to the Union Institute, poor children are three times as likely to drop out of school as middle class kids. Poor mothers are less likely to take their children to government-funded clinics for follow up immunizations. Daughters of welfare mothers are twice as likely as non-welfare daughters to be on public assistance when they are young adults. And while 11 percent of whites are poor, 32 percent of blacks are. An important point, often overlooked, is that stable black families get out of the ghetto as soon as they can. Meanwhile, one out of every four black males will spend some time in jail, prison, or on probation before his early twenties; in the District of Columbia, 66 percent of young black men who go through the justice system will go back through again. In one recent year, black youths accounted for 45 percent of the nation's arrests for murder and manslaughter, 54 percent for forcible rape, 68 percent for robbery, and 39 percent for aggravated assault.

The public image of welfare exacerbates the problem of generating empathy and action for the poor. The average stay, despite liberal protestations to the contrary, is 11.6 years, according to studies by David Ellwood, the Harvard professor who is now an assistant secretary of Health and Human Services. Welfare rewards single mothers who have more children by increasing their check accordingly; often, it's difficult to find an entry-level job that pays as well as the dole.

* The Great Society, because of the perception that its antipoverty programs didn't work, provoked enormous frustration.

As poverty endured despite the Job Corps and a generation of reform, from the sixties' Comprehensive Employment and Training Act to the eighties' Job Training Partnership Act, many of the same kinds of people whom the Harrington book reached began to turn against large government programs to combat poverty. Public aid expenditures rose faster in Nixon/Ford/Carter years than they had in the Johnson years, and the number of poor people grew as well. Rates of progress are indeed slow and small; according to evaluations of 16 major current state welfare-to-work programs by the Manpower Research Demonstration Corporation, about the best result is a 10 to 20 percent cut in welfare receipts. That's the best scenario.

In his 1991 book The Promised Land, Nicholas Lemann explores the seminal postwar migration. Between 1940 and 1970, five million blacks left the Southern countryside for Chicago and other cities, and Lemann details how the federal War on Poverty, especially in the ghettos where the immigrants landed, was lost. The Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), the war's headquarters, mistakenly staked its finances and its reputation on local "community action agencies" on the theory that grassroots activists could best structure Head Start programs, literacy classes, and housing rehabilitation. (Jack Kemp, call your think tank. There is no thing new under the sun.) But local politicians from Chicago's Mayor Daley to Mississippi's Senator Eastland resented federal money going through rival political channels, and the community organizers often had no experience running anything, much less a complicated battle against poverty.

Although the OEO had notable successes - head Start is a demonstrated winner, for example, and thousands of new government jobs employed blacks who in turn became a part of the middle class - Lemann points out that when the Newark community action agency staged a play by LeRoi Jones that featured Jack Benny's butler Rochester killing white people, OEO's better moments were decidedly overshadowed.

So we know how the war was generally lost, but the harder question is why it was lost. Solutions have eluded politicians and reporters. Alex Kotlowitz, for example, wrote a powerful story in The Wall Street Journal in 1987 that became a book, There Are No Children Here, chronicling how heartbreakingly scary ghetto life is for two little boys in a Chicago housing project. The book tells us what's wrong but not how to fix it. In the eighties, reports like the Chicago Tribune's 32-part series on the city's West Side underclass and Bill Moyers' 1986 CBS News special, "The Vanishing Family: Crisis in Black America," made poverty a familiar image. In fact, from 1982 to 1992, network evening news stories on poverty, welfare, unemployment, or homelessness in the U.S. outnumbered stories on abortion, 1,327 to 964.

"Clearly, the tendency is to treat poverty as an emotional issue, not as hard news," says Michael Moss, a reporter for Newsday who studied the media's poverty coverage in the eighties. The people who do treat it as hard news and turn an uncompromising eye to programs and how they work are forced to confront the fact that very little works. This sense is what prompted a middle class voter in Kansas City in 1992 to say this to a political pollster when asked about social spending:

I'm tired of paying for everything. The middle income person gets to pay for everything. The rich get all their little loopholes. They don't pay any taxes and the poor people don't have the taxes to pay. So what happens? More and more taxes come out of our paychecks. . . They say they're going to do all these wonderful good things and they never get to those things. They go for administration, or fancy cars, or all kinds of little perks. How much dribbles down to the people or the thing that it's really earmarked for?

* To the extent that there has been widespread concern for the poor in the last dozen years, it's been focused on the homeless, a problem which was badly analyzed, went unsolved, and accordingly increased frustration.

Certainly, it's terrible when an upstanding wage earner (picture Henry Fonda as Tom Joad in the movie version of The Grapes of Wrath) is, through no fault of his own, thrown onto the streets. But how many street people are actually displaced wage earners the system has let down? A good guess is very, very few. The story of homelessness in recent times is a story of how liberals, with a phony diagnosis and a phony prescription, can do more harm than good in bringing attention to the poor.

For much of the decade, homeless advocates like the late Mitch Snyder played a masterful media game, attracting coverage and forcing sympathetic factoids into the public debate. Snyder, for example, generated headlines and captured news footage when he appeared at a congressional hearing in the fall of 1980 toting the cremated remains of "John Doe," the first homeless man to freeze to death in Washington the previous winter.

The liberal antidote was more shelters, more housing, and more jobs - sensible enough solutions if in fact the homeless were stable enough just to need housing to get back on their feet. But a 1992 report in just one state - New York - reflects nationwide realities about the true nature of the problem. Two-thirds of the single men and a third of the adults in families in New York City's shelters were addicted to drugs or alcohol; a third to a fourth of the nation's homeless, according to the Urban Institute, are mentally ill.

This might have surprised editors and reporters. After all, according to a study of magazine and TV news from 1986 to 1989, homeless stories identified only 7 percent of the homeless as abusers and indicated 50 percent were employed. But this news probably didn't surprise most of the people who saw the homeless on the streets day in and day out, sometimes deranged and more conversant with phantoms than with passersby. The liberal critique, forwarded by Snyder, New York Rep. Charles Schumer, the National Coalition for the Homeless, and others, was that if affordable housing was available, the problem would largely go away. Alice S. Baum and Donald W. Burnes, in a new study called A Nation in Denial: The Truth About the Homeless, note that half of those in New York City who are placed in permanent housing return to the shelter system, and Jacqueline Williams, a Washington women with 14 children who famously received housing after pleading her case on "Donahue" in 1989, eventually lost her children to foster care and, after a year, the housing she had been given was so trashed that it was declared unfit for human habitation.

Housing is the answer for some people - the Tom Joads - but it is not the answer for those with a myriad of other problems. Nevertheless, this October, Clinton's Department of Housing and Urban Development offered a $20 million grant to the District of Columbia with a skewed set of goals: 1,000 permanent housing units, 100 job training slots, and 400 places in substance abuse centers. What's really needed are more slots in clinics and mental health homes. As the public has come to see the government's reaction as a phony analysis of a complex problem, sympathy that would properly go to solving the specific problems of the different kinds of poor - tax breaks for working families, treatment and supervised permanent shelter for the mentally ill, and larger assaults on ghetto poverty - has dried up.

Work Fair

There is a strong temptation to ferret out small programs that work and declare that if only we could do this everywhere, then all would be well. Although anecdotal successes tend to sputter out on the national stage, consider two such projects which, while limited in scope, run on the right principles and can be viewed in the same light as a baseball player who hits .300 - which is considered a great year even when the guy failed on seven out of 10 trips to the plate.

* The guarantee of a fair chance. America's most enduring principle - that work will be rewarded - is little more than a pipe dream in poor neighborhoods. But there is evidence that once people are promised a payoff for hard work, they respond. In Kansas City in 1988, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation went to Westport High School (Kauffman's alma mater), an inner city school where the majority of students were poor enough to qualify for free lunches, test scores were low, and the dropout rate was 70 percent. In exchange for taking random drug tests and staying in school Kauffman would finance the kids' college or help them get into a craft after graduation. Once the offer was made, 47.9 percent graduated, compared to 30.9 percent before. "We had kids who didn't know how to work, kids whose mother had been on welfare for 13 years, first-generation kids to even make it past the eighth grade," says Tom Roane, the project director. "It took a lot of tutoring and a lot of talking." Long term investment in education is clearly the antidote for much of what's wrong. The lesson is clear: Dedicated teachers and intense volunteer work in these schools and neighborhoods is effective. And the guarantee do Kauffman provided at Westport - that virtue will be rewarded - ought to be offered to everyone.

* Hammer away at the work ethic. Daniel Patrick Moynihan had it basically right in 1988 with his landmark Family Support Act, the latest attempt to link welfare with work. While implementation has been poor - less than two thirds of the available funds were taken by the states in 1992 - one success story is California, which has the largest welfare rolls in the country. The Greater Avenues for Independence (GAIN) program produced increased earnings for welfare recipients in several counties. In the largest, Riverside, administrators plugged the message that jobs were central, even low paying jobs. (In fact, job placement rates per caseworker were figured in assessing staff performance.) The results? In Riverside, GAIN participants' earnings rose 59 percent in the first year, 53 percent in the second.

Hard Times

Flash successes will not alone overcome the the broad reasons we are frustrated with the poor. But those broad reasons can be licked. While we cannot count on a crisis like the Depression to bring us together, the more government does to make public schools attractive and the more young people take part in things like national service, the more Americans will again feel connected to one another. Informed by renewed democratic empathy, antipoverty programs could then be convincingly sold as an important enterprise.

Why should Americans answer appeals to help poor people who are not clearly deserving? Because most Americans sense that something is very wrong. And even those not moved by charitable impulses have to know that tremendous numbers of tax dollars are going just to police the streets and jail offenders. Consider, too, that in the 10 largest U.S. cities the average unemployment rate is 36 percent for all black men and 54 percent among black men aged 18 to 29, according to sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton. A localized problem might lend itself to localized solutions like Kauffman or GAIN.

When LBJ declared "unconditional war on poverty" in 1964 (in a speech written by Kennedy aide Theodore Sorensen), there was no real yard-stick for victory. Clinton's task is to define achievable missions and build credibility for more missions down the road. Making promises that cannot be kept is only going to frustrate people more and make any fight more difficult. And that's exactly what may happen, because while solutions require more than money, they certainly require some money, and the irony is that we are already spending less on direct public aid than most people think. When Lemann was on a national book tour for The Promised Land, he would ask audiences to guess what percentage of the federal budget welfare took up every year. The average estimate was 50 percent - the truth, counting food stamps, housing, and AFDC, is closer to 5 percent.

In The End of Equality, Mickey Kaus projects that his own neo-WPA proposal - abolish AFDC, give every able bodied poor person a public sector job - would run about $50 billion a year. Even to pay for GAIN-like and school programs in every state would cost $15 to $20 billion. Right now, Clinton's welfare reformers have no plan even to pay for the public sector jobs - each costs about $12,000 - for the million or so welfare recipients who won't get off the dole by the end of two years. So Clinton will probably have to break the two-year promise, thereby revealing the dirty secret of the political class: The reason welfare has endured so long is that, in cash terms, it's the cheapest way to handle the problem. You keep people alive with an average monthly payment of $388 per family, plus food stamps. It's not pretty, but it's cheap.

Dwight Macdonald, long ago in the beginning of the Great Society, thought he saw an enduring truth: "There is a monotony to the injustices suffered by the poor that perhaps accounts for the lack of interest the rest of society shows in them. Everything seems to go wrong with them. They never win. It's just boring." A witty line, but Macdonald frames the issue in the wrong way. The "injustices suffered by the poor" are boring. But the more we can talk about solutions for the poor, the less frustrating they will become. And the less poor.
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Title Annotation:Americans' indifference to poverty
Author:Meacham, Jon
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Nov 1, 1993
Words:4235
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