U.S. views on the poor have deep, coiled roots

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
By: Mark Roth
March 5, 2012

U.S. views on the poor have deep, coiled roots

Mary Childers has looked at poverty from both sides.

As an author and consultant, the Dartmouth College official gives talks describing how the economy and government programs affect the poor.

As a woman who grew up in a welfare family, she also knows the intimate details of the subject: the mother who went from one unreliable man to the next; the father who left the family; the siblings who beat the odds, and the ones who didn't.

Ms. Childers is the author of a 2005 memoir, "Welfare Brat," and when she is asked if there are poor people who don't deserve their government checks, she says, yes, absolutely. And it's just as certain that there are poor people who deserve help and are unfairly branded as undeserving, she adds.

"I do think there are people who have squandered resources and have failed to deserve the support of their communities," she said in a recent interview, "but I also believe those people exist in every social class."

"And," she added, "it also seems to me that there's no such thing as an undeserving child, and many of the policies that are designed to hurt undeserving adults hurt children."

The tension over how best to assist poor people in America has deep roots, several experts said.

Voting against welfare

In one survey done in 1981, a federal agency asked people which government programs should be curtailed. When they included "public welfare" on the list of programs, 39 percent of Americans said it should be cut. When they replaced it with the term "aid to the needy," only 7 percent voted for a reduction.

Molly Michelmore, a history professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, said the notion of the "deserving poor" came from English poor laws in the 1800s.

Today in America, she said, "people support helping the poor, but they're against welfare spending because it's loaded up with these implications that you're helping welfare queens who have 17 children and who drive around in Cadillacs."

For many Americans, unfortunately, those images are associated with African-Americans.

But the poverty statistics by race tell a more complicated story. In 2009, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, far more whites were below the poverty line than blacks -- 29.8 million vs. 9.9 million. But the proportion of African-Americans living in poverty was about twice as high as for whites -- 26 percent vs. 12 percent.

John Schmitt, a senior economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., believes bias plays a part in people's lack of compassion for the poor.

"I certainly think racism is a huge part of our problem," he said, "and when people are feeling economically insecure, they don't spend a lot of time focusing on the circumstances of the poor. People running for office sense that, and they pitch to where people are.

"It is also interesting to me that the one continual reference you see from conservatives is to President Obama as the 'food stamp president,' and that is a not so subtle reference to his race."

But politicians also know that Americans don't want aid going to people who don't deserve it.

Even the Democratic presidents who initiated most of our government's major social programs have recognized that attitude, Ms. Michelmore said. When President Franklin Roosevelt initiated Social Security, "he sold it as being better than the dole," she said, and when President Lyndon Johnson launched his Great Society programs, he said they were "providing a hand up, not a handout."

Many receive help

Americans' attitudes are also shaped by their ignorance over how many government benefits they themselves get, said Suzanne Mettler, a Cornell University government professor.

Ms. Mettler wrote about that issue in her 2011 book, "The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy."

In one recent survey, she said, 57 percent of citizens said they had never used a government social program. But when they were then asked about 21 specific programs and benefits, it turned out that many of them actually had.

"People are largely unaware of the benefits they get from government," she said, "because many are channeled through the tax code, or through private organizations that give the benefits to people so they aren't aware of the government role."

One of the biggest federal aid programs is the home mortgage interest deduction, which costs the federal government at least $120 billion in tax revenues each year.

Because it is handled through the tax code, though, it is hidden from view, she said, and the policies that are more "submerged" also tend to benefit higher-income people.

"So it's easy for people to say, 'Oh, I don't use government social programs, because those are for poor people,' when they are actually the same, from an accounting perspective. It doesn't matter whether you pay people benefits through welfare or give them a tax benefit -- either way there's less money to spend on other government programs."

Stephen Pimpare, author of "A People's History of Poverty in America," said his problem with the terms "deserving" and "undeserving" is that, "historically, they are used by those who have political and economic power to justify their policies, to rationalize a certain failure to intervene and offer assistance."

It fits with a conservative philosophy that "you should resist giving aid to the poor, because you're ultimately doing more harm than good and you're getting in the way of people's natural self-motivation to better themselves," he said.

Facing economic hurdles

The problem with that argument is that it ignores the obstacles many poor working Americans face, Mr. Schmitt said.

Many Americans are unaware of the fact that the minimum wage has not kept pace with the growth of the American economy since the 1970s, he said. If it had, it would now be about $15 an hour, or more than $30,000 a year.

"Between the end of World War II and the mid-1970s, while we still had a much more divided society in terms of racial segregation and discrimination against women, it was also the case that we had much more coherent and unified organization of ourselves as workers," Mr. Schmitt said. "A third of the work force was in unions in the 1960s, so you might have gone to college and gotten the desk job but your cousin or brother was working at the plant, and the difference in being poor and being middle class then was a lot smaller."

Mr. Schmitt sometimes asks people to use "The Honeymooners" test. "Think about how spare the living conditions were" on that 1950s Jackie Gleason show about a bus driver and a sewer worker and their wives. "The social differences between the poor and working class were a lot smaller in those days, and I think there was much more of an emphasis on bringing everyone along together."

Despite the pessimism many share about the future of poor people, some see signs of hope.

Michael Katz, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said some activists are now looking at poor people as an economic resource rather than a problem.

He pointed to work by Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter, who has founded an institute to promote the establishment of groceries and other stores in poor communities, and the work of Washington University professor Michael Sherraden, who has pushed for shifting money now spent on the home mortgage interest deduction to helping poor people set up 401K savings accounts.

"These more market-driven initiatives are based on the idea that poor people are like anybody else; that they are rational people who will respond to incentives," Mr. Katz said.

Even a staunch libertarian like Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute has advocated giving poor households a stipend of as much as $10,000 a year.

Under Mr. Murray's plan, everyone in America earning as much as $25,000 a year would get the stipend, funded by dismantling existing social welfare programs.

He acknowledges that some fellow libertarians hate this idea, but, from his viewpoint, "it just makes a little cushion for a guy who is in the $20,000-a-year job and that's all he can make."

The fact that people like Mr. Murray can advocate that kind of aid is a hopeful sign, said Lane Kenworthy, a University of Arizona economist who studies poverty.

"In Europe, maybe a generation ago or earlier, the debate over the 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor became a moot point, and they essentially shifted away from the question of who deserves support and said instead, 'We're going to think pragmatically about what works and doesn't work.' I think we're moving in that direction here in the U.S. much more slowly, but I think we'll get there."

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