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Pimping poverty, then and now.

On May 20, we saw the creation of a new avatar of welfare fraud, a black woman in New York City accused of receiving $450,000 in public aid illegally (through a number of fictitious identities and nonexistent children) over a seven-year period. The story of the alleged culprit--complete with photos and videotape of her being led, handcuffed, to her arraignment--was splashed sensationally over The New York Times and television network news, as well as local media. Several aspects of this spectacle, which seems to have evaporated as suddenly as it appeared, are worthy of note.

For one thing, the media representations update the old "welfare queen" imagery. A decade of underclass rhetoric has melded black poverty and criminality. The "welfare queen" no longer rides, Amos 'n' Andy-like, joyfully in her Cadillac; she is now sullen, foreboding, and shackled, like her brother, Willie Horton.

The episode also highlights the way the news industry and government institutions can collaborate to shape public consciousness. How did the news media get videotape of the suspect in police custody? How did they even know about the arrest so soon?

The incident coincided with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's and Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau's efforts to install a mandatory system of electronic fingerprinting of welfare recipients in New York. A willing news industry thus becomes part of the public-relations campaign in support of such initiatives.

There is also the matter of definition of welfare fraud. Ultimately, any public policy is intended to enhance or preserve the social welfare. Yet only certain policy areas and programs--usually those that disproportionately benefit stigmatized groups--attain the social-welfare label. When we expand the definition of social welfare to include the billions siphoned off routinely in sweetheart contracts, pork-barrel projects, special tax breaks, and the like--not to mention Pentagon waste and the recent scandals in the banking and savings-and-loan industry and the Department of Housing and Urban Development--the magnitude of the fraud in this sensationalized case scarcely warrants a blurb in the B section.

A one-on-one comparison is also revealing. Less than two weeks after the welfare-fraud story, Representative Dan Rostenkowski, Democrat of Illinois, was indicted for having defrauded the Federal Government of at least $760,000 over two decades. Unlike the new welfare queen, Rostenkowski was neither handcuffed nor denied bail. His situation has been framed in the media as a tragedy as much as a crime. Coverage has devoted considerable attention to the complexity of his character, a humanizing and mitigating focus absolutely missing from the other case.

Discovery and propagation of the new welfare-fraud story stimulate another comparison. Shortly after I came to teach at Northwestern University, I attended a long-range planning meeting at the Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research, of which I've been a fellow since joining the faculty here. As the discussion among my new colleagues focused on the need to anticipate and craft projects fitting funding agencies' research priorities, I found myself overtaken by a curious sense of deja vu. Gradually, I realized that the discussion reminded me almost exactly of Community Action agency staff and board meetings in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It reminded me, that is, of the mindset and practices that gave rise to the phrase "pimping poverty."

Poverty pimping, generally speaking, was another form of at least de-facto welfare fraud. It connoted the pursuit of narrow personal gain under the guise of fighting poverty. It implied the hypocritical appropriation by relatively well-off people, usually as program functionaries or putative spokespersons, of public and philanthropic resources designated for improving the lives of the poor. It was more or less tawdry, distasteful, and reprehensible. In an imperfect world, it was also inevitable that some people would seek out opportunities for corruption.

And that corruption included a political opportunism and dishonesty that, beneath superficially militant rhetoric (the "mau mau" scam immortalized by Tom Wolfe), actually impeded and undermined advancement of poor people's interests. The typical move was to demand payoffs in exchange for acquiescing to ruling elites' regressive agendas (for example, urban renewal plans that would displace poor people, or cuts in public spending). The legitimacy and visibility derived through connection to official antipoverty institutions, moreover, made it easier to enforce that kind of acquiescent politics.

Poverty pimping required collusion by the governmental and philanthropic elites who controlled purse strings and defined both the nature of material incentives and the rules of the game. Recent arguments from such apologists for the Democratic Leadership Council as Theda Skocpol, Thomas Edsall, and William Julius Wilson that black militants hijacked Federal antipoverty efforts are absurd, disingenuous attempts to justify retreat from egalitarian ideals.

The style developed because granting agencies allowed it to. They rewarded poverty pimping while at the same time rejecting more genuinely redistributive initiatives. Having steered antipoverty politics relentlessly toward narrow opportunism, those elites and their intellectual housepets now cite that narrow opportunism as the all-purpose cause of the failure of 1960s activism, the collapse of the Democratic coalition, white racism, and whatever else comes to mind.

The key characteristic of 1960s poverty pimping--apart from its venal substance, of course--is that it was a fundamentally accommodationist politics that sought credibility through a radical or activist patina. The world of official antipoverty programs developed as a response to popular activism and agitation for democratic redistribution of wealth. Poverty pimps' spurious claims to broker the interests of "the people" were therefore important for elites' legitimacy as well.

Not anymore. The climate of the 1960s and the structure of antipoverty programs dictated that the benefits of poverty-pimping trickle down a tad. Cooptation of grass-roots activists meant that the occasional AFDC recipient or public-housing resident would enjoy real upward mobility. Right-wing state legislator Polly Williams in Milwaukee is one example of that trickle-down effect. Democratic Representative Maxine Waters of Los Angeles is another. Similar, if less dramatic, cases exist in virtually every big city.

Booker T. Washington, at the end of the Nineteenth Century, achieved limited upward mobility for a few through his Tuskegee Institute by conceding the struggle for broader and more complete equality. Likewise, 1960s poverty pimping enacted a perverse model of egalitarian redistribution that was both extremely limited and predicated on leaving larger structures of inequality intact.

Sitting in that seminar room in the fall of 1991, I realized that I was witnessing the familiar impulse to turn poverty into an opportunity for personal gain. But it was also immediately clear that the minions of the poverty-research industry have redefined poverty pimping. No longer does the pimp claim to be an authentic representative of the poor. No one cares much anymore what poor people think or want or need. Again, a decade of underclass ideology has denied poor people any human agency in social-policy discourse. They exist only as a problem to be handled, more or less dangerous and alien objects of administration.

What we have now is neoliberal poverty pimping. Technical expertise is the new criterion of authenticity; policy-wonk technospeak has replaced the mau mau. That means, of course, that the qualifications for entry into the pimping profession have changed. One now needs to hold a doctorate, preferably in economics or the quantitative branches of sociology--or at least to be conversant with them and to have mastered the four essential hedging judgments of poverty research 1) some do, some don't; 2) the differences aren't all that great; 3) it's more complicated than that, and, most of all, 4) further research is needed.

I remember an earlier seminar--my first real exposure to the inner circles of the poverty-research biz--on scholarship in progress on teenaged childbearing, held at the Commonwealth Fund in New York, which was funding the research. Frank Furstenberg, a University of Pennsylvania sociologist and captain of the teen-pregnancy industry, and Gilbert Steiner, Mr. Family Policy at the then nominally liberal Brookings Institution, responded to every single attempt to make general statements about the issue (presumably a necessity for crafting any social policy) with haughty combinations of hedging responses 3 and 4. All roads, it seems, lead to poverty researchers getting paid, and not very far beyond.

As I looked around the room at Northwestern during my recent epiphany, it was striking that the group was almost all white, almost all male, and all middle-class. And Northwestern's cohort accurately represents the social composition of the larger poverty-research industry. The neoliberal poverty pimps' status underwrites the disgustingly smug, self-righteous, third-person discourse that dehumanizes and disparages poor people. It also reflects the elimination of even the perverse egalitarianism of the old school of pimping.

Long gone are the days when a clever, entrepreneurially inclined person might use antipoverty programs and rhetoric as an individual route up from the projects or AFDC. Apart from a very small handful of Potemkin success stories cynically propagated by Republican ideologues (sometimes operating under the Democratic label), the field now belongs to the academics. Antipoverty money now trickles no further down the class ladder than to graduate student neophytes, who by and large go on to reproduce the industry on the same terms.

The stakes in this game are high. And challengers to the regular players--while no longer met with fistfights or gun battles, as in the days of Community Action turf disputes--are dealt with ruthlessly in a new way.

University of Michigan Professor Arline Geronimus, whose research has challenged the orthodoxy that teenaged childbearing causes rather than reflects poverty, has been the target of a concerted and vicious campaign of misrepresentation and character assassination. Marian Wright Edelman's Children's Defense Fund has stooped to race-baiting Geronimus, who is white. Frank Furstenberg, who patrols trademark integrity for the Guttmacher Institute (formerly Planned Parenthood's research arm), has led the charge in academic circles.

I attended a crudely staged attempt to discredit Geronimus, then an untenured assistant professor, orchestrated by Furstenberg and others and suffused with sexist condescension. Geronimus was invited to present her work at a joint Northwestern/University of Chicago poverty seminar in 1992, which turned out to be a staged attack.

Large grants and the credibility that access to them requires are at stake in this business, and the pimps act accordingly. How lucrative is this new form of welfare fraud? Keep in mind that the latest welfare queen allegedly grossed on average just under $65,000 per year.

Now consider: At Northwestern's Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research, affiliated faculty received a total of at least $4,800,000 for poverty research in 1992 and 1993 alone. The big hitters include professor Thomas D. Cook, who got $1,997,700 for projects on adolescence and schools, teen pregnancy, and racial-identity formation in the schools. John McKnight, who has retained high levels of public and private funding through Democratic and Republican administrations, received $499,200 for work on microlevel "community innovations"--nonpolitical accommodations to systemic dispossession. Professor James Rosenbaum acquired $422,200 for studying school/employer linkages. (He thinks they're good, by the way.) Economist Rebecca Blank received $394,200, mainly for a joint project with Christopher Jencks to reproduce neoliberal poverty pimps' professional DNA by "training" graduate students as specialists on the underclass. Sociologist Roberto Fernandez received $237,400 for yet another rehash of the thesis that inner-city unemployment is so high mainly because black and brown poor people live too far away from the jobs for which they'd qualify.

I don't mean to suggest that my colleagues are unique or even distinctive perpetrators of this upscale welfare fraud. I focus on them only because I have ready access to the figures. The same pattern could be seen at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School, the University of Wisconsin's Institute for Research on Poverty, the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy, the School of Public Policy at UC-Berkeley, Harvard's Kennedy School, the University of Michigan's Institute for Public Policy Studies, and in smaller doses elsewhere. In addition, such nonacademic think tanks as the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, the Urban Institute, Brookings, and even such rightist front groups as the American Enterprise Institute, suck up even greater sums of poverty-research money.

For a sense of the industry's magnitude, during 1991 and 1992, the Rockefeller Foundation awarded approximately $17.8 million in grants to support research on urban poverty in the United States. During the years when our welfare queen pilfered her $450,000, the Ford Foundation gave out $30.3 Million--in average of $4.3 million annually--in the Policy Research and Program Evaluation component of the U.S. section of its urban poverty program alone. And this is a most conservative estimate of Ford's total poverty-research budget. It doesn't include expenditures on international policy research and program evaluation. Much of the activity supported under other components of the urban poverty program--for example, "Welfare and Teen Pregnancy," "Secondary Schools and Youth Employment," and "Crime Prevention and Neighborhood Security"--also is primarily research-related. Nor does it take into account Ford's comparably funded and organized rural poverty program. This quick glance also doesn't consider the scores of millions in poverty-related research funded annually either by other foundations or by the U.S. Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development.

The point is that poverty research is a huge academic business. Of course, some of the output of this industry is useful. (Geronimus's research is one important and significantly disregarded example.) And many of its practitioners are motivated by benign intentions. Nevertheless, the bottom line is that they make money off the existence of poverty, and those good intentions often seem to be just so much petit-bourgeois self-aggrandizement.

Endlessly cooking and rehashing data to fine-tune minute interpretations of aggregate statistical relationships in a self-consciously depoliticized way are alternatives to clear and direct arguments about inequality. As studying poverty comes increasingly to substitute for fighting inequality, the 1960s poverty pimps look less bad in comparison. The old pimps, like the new welfare queen, were more marginal economically and therefore likely to be driven by the somewhat more forgivable desire to escape their own impoverishment. They were also less implicated than the contemporary poverty pimps in defining the limits of the possible and the thinkable with respect to social policy in general. Poverty researchers' invocations of expertise and specious posture of neutrality canonize the most mean-spirited, victim-bashing prejudices about poor people.

The originators of poverty pimping as a form of welfare fraud were creatures of a system of dispossession. The new academic perpetrators are also its active agents. They should be fingered as such publicly, since that's what we do with welfare cheats. They can take heart, though--at least they'll never suffer the police-station mug shots and handcuffs.

Adolph Reed Jr. teaches at Northwestern University and is on the board of the Chicago-based Coalition for New Priorities. His column appears in this space every other month.
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Title Annotation:Class Notes; the academic poverty research industry
Author:Reed, Adolph, Jr.
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Aug 1, 1994
Words:2457
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