The Poverty of American Politics

Bill Clinton's late summer tour of impoverished communities has become another occasion for public debate about poverty in America. The related themes of poverty and economic opportunity promise to be a major staple of the 2000 elections. Our political leaders periodically rediscover poverty when elections approach, but the United States is a difficult nation in which to be poor.

Puritan New Englanders took wealth as a sign of God's favor. By the 19th century our culture was dominated by the Horatio Alger mystique of rags to riches. The converse of these celebratory ideals lay in the widespread conviction that the poor deserved their fate. Conservatives were willing to leave them to that fate. Corporate and liberal philanthropy offered occasional alms -- accompanied by intrusive moral guidance. Only during the Great Depression, when poverty gripped wide segments of the middle and working classes, were these easy moral certainties widely challenged.

But American politicians are also masters of the symbol. They deflect criticism by stealth, always appearing as they are not. President Bill ("end welfare as we know it") Clinton's starts the election season with visits to a number of sites, from an impoverished Indian reservation to an inner city ghetto to an Appalachian town. He proclaims himself "against" poverty. In a parroting of Republican nostrums, Clinton brings to the poor areas urban enterprise zones e.g. assistance to the private business sector.

The vice president, ever anxious to get in on the thunder, goes to Texas to chide his possible presidential opponent for allowing children to be educated in trailers. Not to be outdone, Governor Bush responds with a political strategy of ''going where Republicans usually don't go,'' as he puts it. He visits Mexican-American enclaves in inner cities. All of this amounts to lots of trips to areas once neglected, but all except the most naive must wonder "where's the beef?" in this posturing.

On the programmatic level, clearly the days of New Deal liberalism are over. Bill Clinton the campaigner is the same president who has actually been on the front lines at creating poverty. His celebrated program to end the AFDC program, and state actions against welfare recipients, is already increasing the ranks of the homeless throughout the nation. The consequences are likely to be increasingly visible as the years go on and poor people exhaust their "lifetime" benefits. His continued championing of the discredited war on drugs and crime is not only, as one author puts it, a "search and destroy" mission against the African-American males, but, with over 5 million low-income people a year put in jail, prison or probation, a policy that promotes and sustains poverty. And with his championing of free trade from NAFTA to GATT, the economic recovery of the '90s has been among the weakest of our post World War II expansions. Economist Doug Henwood reports that during this upswing, increases in real investment, productivity, and wages have been "mediocre at best." Only in the last 18 months have real wages surpassed the high they reached in the previous expansion.

It's true that right now we are in a so called "boom" economy. So for many, the question is how can we have hunger, homelessness, and poverty when job growth is booming? And the widely prevalent answer is once again that the poor are in some ways to blame: They will not work or take drugs or use resources to buy alcohol or junk food.

A reexamination of the current boom and of the extent of hunger might lead us to different conclusions. If hunger is a consequence of intrinsic character flaws, one must wonder why its incidence fluctuates so severely both year to year and by region. If character were to blame, one would expect hunger to diminish when individuals faced the stick of welfare "reform" and the carrot of an expanding job market. Yet James Weil, head of Food Research and Action Center, reports that hunger rose sharply in 1998 and that "36 million Americans were either hungry, were skipping meals, couldn't afford an adequate or balanced diet, or were otherwise on the edge of hunger.''

The vast majority of the poor are working poor. In one of the first state-level studies of welfare "reform" Stephanie Seguino and Sandy Butler established that a majority of the poor in Maine hold full or part time work, with about a quarter holding multiple jobs. A national study by Rutgers University's Center for Workforce Development indicated that only 24 percent of the working poor wanted to work less, compared with 58 percent of other workers from earlier Rutgers studies. Conversely, 24 percent of the working poor said they wanted to work more, compared with 12 percent of other workers. In addition, contrary to many prevalent stereotypes, a study done in 1993 by Mathematica Policy Research concluded that food stamp recipients shop smarter and eat 20 to 50 percent less junk food than other people.

If the poor are willing to work, husband their resources wisely, and often work harder than many others, so too are they willing to learn. But our corporate political economy fails them in this way as well. The Rutgers study found that 81 percent of the working poor wanted to enroll in an education or training program but only 18 percent work for employers who give financial help for off-site job training or education (compared with 36 percent of higher-income workers). Only 27 percent received government aid for that purpose.

Corporate unwillingness to fund job training and development is not surprising given a U.S. corporate culture that emphasizes short-term profits and often fails to make the best use of the existing talents of workers at all levels. Unfortunately, the Clinton/Gore Administration's current notions of "enterprise zones" are only likely to feed the worst aspects of this corporate culture. Most enterprise zone proposals offer a relaxation in occupational or environmental laws and/or reductions in specific business taxes in return for investment in depressed areas. Relaxation of important business regulations punishes firms that strive to maintain best practices and can encourage political pressure to water down national standards. Ultimately, the costs in polluted environments and damaged workers must be borne by the affected communities or even the taxpayer.

Tax favors may seem a more benign way to advance the interests of depressed areas. Nonetheless, as Chris Tilly, Professor of Regional Economic and Social Development at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, points out, most such proposals have significant flaws. The proposals generally entail relocation to the impoverished area but do not require that employees be hired from that area. Tilly points out that "given American commuting patterns, it is possible for a business to locate in the inner city but hire its entire staff from outside, which defeats the stated purpose of an enterprise zone." Tilly also points out that "The time-limited nature of enterprise zone incentives means that businesses may temporarily locate in low income areas, benefit from the subsidies or tax breaks, and then leave. U.S. inner cities are littered with closed businesses where this happened."

Enterprise zones, like most forms of government tax favors or contracts with U.S. corporations more generally, ask no quid pro quo of the recipients. Businesses can pay low wages, provide minimal levels of training, and offer their employees no benefits or long term equity stake in the firm. Although such workplace practices generally are counterproductive in the long run, they often do yield short-term profit gains.

As a consequence of short-term corporate thinking and corporate-oriented trade treaties, workers have suffered throughout much of the current "boom." The stagnation in worker pay and productivity that has characterized all but the last 18 months accounts for both much of the hunger among low-income workers and many of the stereotypes and resentments held by those just above them in the corporate pyramid.

Many of America's industrial and white-collar workers are now working the longest hours of their lives. Their jobs are tedious and unstimulating. They have faced stagnant or even declining real incomes during much of their working lives. Their hold on the American dream of a stable and secure family life has become tenuous at best. In the context of a corporate culture that seems resistant to change and a political process that is virtually moribund, traditional notions about the poor deserving their fate help many marginalized workers feel better about themselves and their fate.

They also feed a politics that focuses on the welfare poor as the cause of high taxes and social decay. Such a politics, often closely intertwined with racist sentiments, blocks the kind of broad coalitions needed to redress corporate economic and political power.

Not surprisingly, the United States is thus one of the few nations in the world in which the problems of the "poor" are separated out from the problems of all working people. One indication of this is that all industrialized nations of the world but the United States provide basic income support (referred to as "child allowances" or "family allowances") to families regardless of income. Although modest in scale (for example, ranging in Europe from about $1,200 per child in the United Kingdom to closer to $2,000 in France and Sweden), such government support ensures some basic protection for children from poverty by providing a guaranteed minimum income (plus "social assistance" for those who are still poor!). In the United States, where mainstream politicians and the culture sanctifies and sentimentalizes the "family" and children, we do almost nothing to ensure income support. A battle to implement child allowances in the United States could potentially rally different divided constituencies all of whom claim the mantle of serving children. (It should be noted, incidentally, for those concerned about population, that studies show no significant increase in the birth rate by providing child allowances in Europe and elsewhere.)

In the long run, helping the poor involves the related challenges of questioning stereotypes about the poor and finding programs that address the insecurities of many working and middle class Americans. Programs that would assist all working Americans rather than provide special tax breaks to the corporations that helped create and sustain these conditions are the way to go. Federal aid for the construction and repair of our decaying public schools -- a need estimated by the GAO to be over $100 billion -- would help many American communities while especially benefiting the poorest communities. More adequate urban, suburban, and rural public transit would ease air quality and congestion problems affecting almost everyone and give many inner city and rural residents better access to good jobs.

The corporations that profit from the public contracts to provide such goods and services should be required to pay a living wage, provide health benefits, and offer their workers adequate opportunities for further training and on -the-job advancement. Such requirements would not only foster significant consumer demand in poor communities but also encourage a leveling up of corporate practices.

The Rutgers study's information about attitudes toward work points to another promising avenue. Gradual reductions in the standard work week, not part of our politics since the late '30s, would both take pressure off overworked Americans at the same time as it would offer more job opportunities to the marginally employed. A higher minimum wage, indexed to inflation, would help the poor in ways consonant with our values and improve the bargaining power of most low income workers.

That we cannot afford better schools and transit systems, a shorter work week, an adequate minimum wage, and child allowance programs is belied by the many ways in which such programs would improve the productivity of our workers and ease the waste that characterizes so much of our political economy.

If the politics of poverty is ever to be more than a photo op, it must become the stuff of broad coalitions for reform of our corporate political economy. Developing a program of adequate prerequisites for a minimal quality of life would help and be helped by a reexamination of our stereotypes regarding the poor.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His most recent book (co-authored with Etta Kralovec), The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning, will be published by Beacon Press in August. David Wagner is Professor of Sociology and Social Work at the University of Southern Maine. His latest book, What's Love Got to Do With It? A Critical Look at American Charity, will be published by the New Press in January.

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