Straight Down the Middle
Even in the short term, the argument that poverty is a losing issue is not as self-evident as it might seem. It does not explain, for instance, why John Edwards vaulted past Howard Dean, Dick Gephardt and other candidates in the Democratic primaries when he began talking about the "two Americas" and the moral imperative of reducing poverty. Nor does it account for why, in a poll conducted earlier this year of 1,000 people of diverse faith backgrounds, 78 percent of those surveyed said they would rather hear about a presidential candidate's plan for fighting poverty than about his position on gay marriage. (The survey was conducted jointly by Jim McLaughlin, a Republican pollster, and Tom Freedman, a Democratic consultant.) Some of the same strategists who argue that liberals should avoid harping on the plight of the poor simultaneously recognize the yearning within the electorate for leaders who can articulate a clear, compelling moral agenda.
Conservatives, at least, appear to understand this. One may view George W. Bush's faith-based initiative, which calls for the federal government to fund churches and other religious organizations so they can take the lead in providing social services to the poor, as a cynical attempt to win the votes of African-American clergy (as well as an adroit end-run around the separation of church and state). But it is also part of a calculated strategy to soften the image of the GOP and bolster its claim to represent the true interests of the disadvantaged. The latter notion might sound absurd to liberals, who have watched the Bush Administration do everything in its power to skew the distribution of wealth and income toward the affluent in recent years. But it is not absurd to voters, who hear Republicans confidently advocating policies (however misguided they may be) that target low-income people--promoting marriage, funding faith-based groups--while hearing from Democrats...nothing. Five years ago, Jason DeParle published an essay in The Washington Monthly, "The Silence of the Liberals," in which he pointed out the irony. "It is striking how little liberals have to say about the poor while conservatives glow and boast," DeParle observed. "To the extent that there's a national conversation about poverty, conservatives now control it."
Of course, there was a reason for this. By the time DeParle was writing, liberals had spent several decades struggling to defend a welfare system that Republicans used as a battering ram against them, an effort that culminated in Bill Clinton's signing of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. Conservatives have controlled the debate about poverty ever since, one could argue, because they won it. But, as DeParle noted then and as he further amplifies in his new book, American Dream, an in-depth examination of how welfare reform has played out in Wisconsin, ending welfare-as-we-knew-it hardly put the problem of deeply entrenched poverty to rest. It hasn't solved the crisis of spiraling housing costs facing millions of low-income families. It hasn't provided childcare and other essential services (or for that matter a living wage) to millions of single mothers who have joined the workforce. It didn't stop 45 million Americans from going without healthcare last year. Nor did it address the problem of the residential isolation of the poor--shored up by exclusionary zoning policies and woefully inadequate public transportation--which, in the view of Angela Glover Blackwell, president of the advocacy group PolicyLink, is the single greatest barrier to opportunity for residents of the nation's inner-city neighborhoods.
The fact that conservatives no longer have welfare to kick around when such issues come up is, one could argue, not a problem for progressives but an opportunity. As Dalton Conley, a sociologist at New York University, observes, removing the specter of the lazy, undeserving "welfare queen" from the debate has made it far easier for politicians to talk about poor people without worrying about provoking a (racially inflected) backlash. Peter Edelman, a one-time Robert Kennedy aide and renowned expert on poverty, agrees. For all its problems, he says, one undeniably good thing that came out of welfare reform is that "the public isn't as angry [at poor people] anymore."
To criticize John Kerry for not taking advantage of this is not to suggest that he would do no better than Bush in addressing the needs of poor people were he elected. Kerry has advocated raising the minimum wage by 36 percent (to $7 an hour) over the next three years, an increase he claims will help 7 million working people escape poverty. His health plan calls for having the federal government extend coverage to all children in families below the poverty line, which would then enable states to cover those with incomes up to three times this level (Kerry would pay for this by rolling back Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans). It's not universal coverage, but an analysis by Kenneth Thorpe of Emory University estimates the plan would provide 27 million currently uninsured Americans with medical care.
Nor would Kerry appoint people like Alphonso Jackson as head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, who believes poverty is merely a state of mind from which the indigent must liberate themselves. The tone of the discussion in Washington on issues ranging from housing to healthcare would undoubtedly grow more sensible and more humane. These are not minor differences. Even so, the fact remains that at the level of vision and strategy, the Kerry campaign has passed up the opportunity to articulate anything that can remotely be characterized as a bold antipoverty agenda. The ideas liberals present these days that deal with poverty--to the extent they are even willing to discuss them--tend to be framed around the concerns and anxieties of the middle class. The fact that poor people may also benefit is rarely mentioned, almost as if this is incidental or even embarrassing.
"At some point, we're going to need to have a conversation about how to respond to things the market doesn't take care of," says Deepak Bhargava. Democrats will need to find the courage, in other words, to remind Americans that not everyone can be lifted into the middle class merely by kicking them off the welfare rolls; that, in a country with sluggish employment, a rental housing crisis in many cities and hundreds of communities where good jobs (not to mention adequate training and education) simply don't exist, repairing and strengthening the social safety net is necessary as well.
"We're running a country in which we have literally millions of people who are outside any definition of inclusion," says Edelman. Until more Democrats are willing to talk about this, the 15 million Americans living in conditions of extreme destitution will continue to remain invisible. Conservatives will continue to claim that they're the ones with the fresh ideas about poverty. And people like Angela Perry will continue to wonder whether both candidates in the presidential election this year are out of touch with reality. Perry, like Patricia Lewis, attended the poor people's march during the Republican National Convention. She traveled to the event with a group of low-income women from Louisville, Kentucky. "We need better childcare, better housing, jobs, education," she said in explaining why she'd decided to make the trip. Did she think George W. Bush and the Republicans sincerely cared about the poor? "No," she answered flatly. And what about the Democrats?
She paused. "No comment," she smiled, and then exchanged a knowing look with the women standing next to her, not one of whom ventured an alternative opinion.