Sunday Washington Post: Spinning Myths About the Poor
James Q. Wilson’s January 29 op-ed in the Washington Post—“Angry about inequality? Don’t blame the rich”—is oh so polite, and oh so offensive, as it peddles myth after myth that essentially add up to this: the poor have no one but themselves to blame, they’re not that poor anyway, and taxing rich people won’t help them.
Wilson argues that for the poor to rise we must “encourage parental marriage” and “induce them to join the legitimate workforce.” He points out that the poor have things like plumbing and heat, “a telephone, a television set, and a clothes dryer,” and there are fewer malnourished children. He says improving low-income mobility “has nothing to do with taxing the rich” and “the problem facing the poor is not too little money.”
“He’s right, there are fewer malnourished children and less substandard housing—largely because of public policy, which costs money,” says Georgetown University law professor Peter Edelman, who accompanied Senator Robert Kennedy on his poverty tour as an aide and is author of a forthcoming book, So Rich, So Poor. “Food stamps, Medicaid, housing vouchers, energy assistance—they all require resources, and they’ve all faced cuts.”
Wilson says ultimately the plight of the poor is about “too few skills and opportunities to advance themselves.”
“As though the hundreds of billions in high-income tax breaks couldn’t serve some useful purpose in that regard—for education, child care, subsidized jobs, infrastructure investment that would create jobs,” says Debbie Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs.
Here are just a few things made worse by tax breaks for the wealthy: unequal schools segregated by race, class and quality that are funded by property taxes. Hungry kids who aren’t ready to learn and early interventions that would significantly improve brain development are shortchanged. Parents working two or even three jobs who can’t pull their families out of poverty, afford childcare or take job training or community college courses to better themselves because those don’t count towards meeting their (low-wage) work requirement for welfare benefits.
And what of that push for marriage? It would be great if there were all kinds of marital opportunities out there for happy families, and one idea is to start looking at the cradle to prison pipeline if that’s a serious societal goal. Another important point noted by Half in Ten in its Restoring Shared Prosperity report is that marriage isn’t the only route to the antipoverty affect conservatives tout—it’s two incomes that are key. Only 4 percent of households with more than one earner are in poverty as compared to 24 percent with a single earner. So Wilson might consider calling for funding of summer and year-round programs aimed at connecting disadvantaged youth to education and work experience, or subsidized jobs that were supported by Democratic and Republican governors alike.