An Impoverished Debate
The protracted economic crisis that has entangled America since 2007 has produced an uproar of political reaction, galvanizing the public consciousness to demand answers to the bigger questions of our time: the role of government, the challenges of globalization, and the rapid rise of inequality have all been furiously debated. Furthermore, the pitch of political discussion and action has remained particularly feverous and ferocious, whether manifested in the polarization of Congress or the anti-establishment outrage in the Tea Party and Occupy movements.
Yet in the midst of this political cacophony, there has been a deafening silence concerning something that should be identified as a key national concern: the growing epidemic of poverty in America. Poverty has always been a complicated, challenging issue, but changing social and political attitudes towards poverty in the wake of the 1996 welfare reform compromise, coupled with the disruptions posed by the Great Recession, have converged to shut out talk of poverty from the national discourse.
Figures released by the US Census Bureau in late 2012 have shown the astounding extent to which this epidemic has gained ground in America over the past few years. The proportion of Americans living in poverty has risen from the 11 percent pre-recession low to 15 percent, a peak not witnessed in 20 years. The figure is set to increase further to 15.8 percent by 2014, according to projections made by the Brookings Institute and The Economist, resulting in an additional 10 million Americans joining the ranks of the poor over the course of this decade. To add to this depressing set of statistics, the poverty count increases dramatically from an already record high of 46 million to 66 million if the federal poverty line (drawn at $24,500 for a family of four) is redefined at only 25 percent above its current value.
Given the severity of America’s poverty crisis, it would be reasonable to expect that politicians, the media, or even citizen groups would raise the issue in the public forum. Yet, a puzzling and pervasive lack of debate on the subject has come to pass. The presidential race of 2012 is a perfect illustration of just how little attention the issue has been receiving from the public at large. While candidate Mitt Romney passed off poverty as problem adequately solved by the safety net, famously admitting he is “not concerned about the very poor,” President Obama proved even more reticent on the topic; he spoke euphemistically of vague aspirations to join the middle class and neglected the topic entirely in his inaugural address.
Such a reluctance to bring up the issue during recent general elections is an anomaly in post-war America, and speaks to the broader apathy of most Americans towards the subject. After all, campaign pitches are merely a reflection of the issues that the majority of Americans and media outfits deem important for discussion. Several studies on public opinion and media studies support this hypothesis of widespread indifference. The Pew Research Center found a severe downward trend in the percentage of Americans who consider poverty alleviation a public priority. Figures fell from 63 percent in 2001 to 59 percent in 2005, and finally 52 percent in 2012. In a separate poll that Pew conducted in 2011, 51 percent of Americans agreed with the claim, “The government can’t afford to do much more to help the needy,” marking the first time that a majority endorsed the statement since the survey began 15 years ago. The media seems equally culpable in eschewing the fight against poverty. A report by the non-profit organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting found that across major media outlets including CBS, ABC, NPR, and the New York Times, only 17 out of 10,489 campaign stories directly addressed poverty.
Recent trends and statistics make two things clear: poverty is a troubling and growing phenomenon in the United States, and no one is willing to talk about it. But it is crucial to understand the web of social, economic, and cultural factors that drive this reticence. Modern political perspectives on how society should deal with the poor can best be measured by the last decisive action society took to address poverty – tellingly, this occurred 17 years ago in the form of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWOA), also known as welfare reform. Although PRWOA may not necessarily be a failed poverty alleviation tactic in itself, a brief historical analysis reveals that it was both the effect and consequence of a period in history where the debate on poverty was considered decisively closed, sowing the seeds for future apathy on the topic.
Welfare reform, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, was the result of a half-decade-long experiment with poverty alleviation programs in the United States. After President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of “War on Poverty” in 1964, accompanied by a raft of anti-poverty measures, the issue immediately became a center of focus in Washington. The Johnson presidency saw the establishment of widespread employment support, welfare, and education initiatives, kick-started with a historic and veritably publicized tour of poor, rural Kentucky. Although these programs were widely credited with slashing poverty in half from a high of 22 percent, they soon faced criticism from the public and animosity from Congress on account of multiple reports of misallocated funds, scandals, and rising expenditures. The political scales eventually tipped in favor of anti-welfare thinkers, and by the time of Nixon’s administration, which received much advice from the noted free-market proponent Milton Friedman, several welfare initiatives were either closed or reformed in an effort to avoid inefficient government intervention.
President Reagan’s term in office, which coincided with a large conservative backlash against the remnants of the welfare movement, set the stage for the future debate on poverty. Influential thinkers like Friedman and the libertarian political scientist Charles Murray advanced the view that the War on Poverty had actually retarded poverty-alleviation efforts by making recipients dependent on assistance and de-incentivizing work. Though poverty levels remained stubbornly high at 15 percent, the conservative attack on welfare intensified. Declaring that the War on Poverty had been won – by poverty – Reagan radically restructured welfare, cutting cash assistance to dependent families in favor of offering income tax credits to low-income earners. The conservative counter-vision had been stated and boldly so; government welfare created a cycle of dependency, trapping generations within poverty. The government’s role in combating poverty was best served by creating jobs and assisting the working poor in limited measure.
Now accorded the due responsibility of working towards bettering their own future, the poor would no longer be characterized as ”welfare queens” and ”lazy drunks.” Such a message caught on quickly in America, as the public became increasingly disillusioned with the failures of the welfare system of earlier years.
By the 1990s, even Democrats grudgingly surrendered their advocacy of large welfare systems, reaching a compromise position of “workfare.” This concept, pioneered to a large extent in the United States by Tommy Thompson, the Republican governor of Wisconsin during the late 1980s, was predicated upon the idea that government aid should operate with an aim to move as many recipients into the workforce as possible, and hence reduce reliance on state assistance. The success of this effort, along with the political mainstream’s dissatisfaction with existing programs, meant that welfare had turned into a political liability. An economic boom that brought poverty rates down by the mid-1990s only sharpened this view. And in 1996, President Bill Clinton reached across the aisle to “end welfare as we know it,” signing into law the groundbreaking Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (after having vetoed two Republican bills on welfare reform) that completely restructured federal aid to low-income groups.
Welfare expenditure in the form of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program was greatly reduced through several different measures and renamed Temporary Aid to Needy Families. Cash assistance was limited to five years and was tied to a willingness to search for work. Discretion over federal funds on poverty alleviation passed to the states, and federal funds were no longer adjustable, but were instead handed out in fixed grants. By and large, welfare was no longer considered an entitlement program, but had become a system of workfare.
Conditions at the time bolstered the view that the correct formula to tackle poverty had been found. Around 2000, the poverty rate in the United States reached a low of 11.3 percent – within a hair’s breadth of the historical low reached in 1973. Welfare caseloads shrank throughout the decade by 2 million; there was a 30 percent increase in employment of low-income single mothers, income of low income families rose by 25 percent, and welfare payments constituted a dramatically smaller share of income received by the poor. Summing up the sentiment of the times, a 2002 New York Times editorial began with the line “Welfare reform has been an obvious success,” while a 2006 Brookings Institute report on the topic was titled “It Worked.” The 1996 reform had been etched in stone – to fight against it would be political suicide, and even mentioning welfare had become taboo, for what remained to be said? An uneasy truce kept both parties silent on welfare ever since, described as an “off the table political issue” by a 2008 New York Times article that ran “Do Americans Still Hate Welfare?” The left and the right agreed; discussion on poverty was closed.
Or so it would seem. The benefit of hindsight shows us that all was not as rosy as it appeared. The unusually low poverty rates experienced over the past 20 years have had less to do with foresighted policy and more to do with an unprecedented economic boom that could not have been continually sustained. The Great Recession has exposed the inability of the welfare system to protect the poor when they most need it. America’s poverty reform needs to be redrawn to better suit the unique circumstances that the poor face and will continue to face over this decade. Policy and public response to the issue, however, seems stuck in the past. The low levels of concern for the poor evidenced earlier in this article seem to stem from the belief that America’s methods of poverty fighting need no adjustment. The social and political conceptions frozen in time by the welfare deal have impeded any new insight on the topic. All opposing viewpoints have been bullied out by prevailing views set in place in 1996, and any effort to speak of changing direction since then has been met with a harsh political and social backlash.
On the political front, the left seems inhibited from bringing up changes in the fight against poverty, while the right is content with the gains it was able to secure in 1996.Scarred from its experience of falling on the wrong side of public opinion on poverty after the 1994 midterms, the Democratic Party considers its pro-welfare past a major liability. Its vulnerability on the topic prevents the left from speaking out on a pro-poverty platform, focusing instead on rhetoric aimed exclusively at the middle class. This sensitivity to being caught speaking on the issue can easily be seen both in how conservatives have tried to label the Democratic Party a welfare party, and how Democrats have tried to distance themselves from this notion. When President Obama announced that states could apply to replace certain work requirements under TANF in favor of new pilot projects last July, a conservative firestorm erupted, accusing Democrats of “gutting welfare” (in the words of a Washington Post editorial). Governor Romney’s campaign was quick to run a series of attack ads claiming that the president had silently ended the 1996 welfare reform and that his policies were favoring a return to the cycle of welfare dependency. Although numerous news organizations including CNN and ABC News called these claims false, the damage had already been done. President Obama was forced to make clear that he championed the causes behind welfare reform, even employing ex-President Clinton’s backing to attest that his views were perfectly in sync with 1996 thinking. The conservative tactic on calling out Democrats as proponents of welfare has been a key factor in keeping the left reluctant to talk about poverty.
The politics of poverty and welfare, however, can only reflect popular social views on the issues. The workfare concept that grew out of the 1990s was symbolic of a view that low-income groups were just like ordinary employees who had to work their way out of poverty. According to a report by the Salvation Army conducted in 2012, half of all Americans believed that poverty could be entirely overcome with a good work ethic. Pew polling also found that an incredible 71 percent of Americans believed the poor were too dependent on government welfare, implying that they needed to work more. The popularity of this notion may explain why the public discourse refuses to admit the growing problem of poverty in and of itself. Despite the structural challenges and systematic discrimination they face, the poor are viewed as no different from wealthier working groups and, consequently, do not require a political space of their own outside the current discussions on inequality and economic growth. With little social interest in discussing the plight of the poor, it’s unsurprising that no noise has been raised on the political stage about their condition.
Ultimately, poverty is an incredibly complex and often intractable problem that societies across the world face. Whether conservatives, liberals, or centrists have the best formula to carry the war on poverty forward is hard to gauge. What remains certain, however, is that the anti-poverty mechanisms we have in place are woefully inadequate to meet today’s needs as well as those of the near future. The public conscience needs to be roused from the stupor it has fallen into since welfare reform and face the reality of today. Society’s efforts to fight poverty should be under constant scrutiny and renewed assessment. Even if substantive change can’t immediately be applied to today’s policies, America stands to gain much from a vibrant debate on the topic. The responsibility for rekindling discussion on one of America’s most fundamental problems rests firmly with our journalists, community leaders, and politicians. But it is primarily the duty of the average voter to end the apathy that quietly destroys the lives of millions of their fellow citizens each and every day.