The Silence of the Liberals

The Washington Monthly
April 1999

Conservatives are running the poverty debate. Here's why liberals should join it

If the memoirs of Dick Morris can be at all trusted, there occurred in the summer of 1996 a high-level conversation roughly along these lines: Angry, wavering president, railing at the Senate Majority Leader for placing punitive provisions in the welfare bill: "He loved cutting off children. You should have seen his face. He was delighted that he could savage them, delighted."

Wise adviser, taking the longer view: "If you sign this bill and don't screw up the rest of the campaign, I think you'll win by twelve to seventeen points. Then in your second term, you can ... provide the 'opportunity' part of the equation by proposing a massive program of inner-city jobs for people getting off welfare."

Becalmed president, seeing the light: "That's a good point. It's a process, and we're just starting out."

Wise adviser, closing the deal: "I believe that your signing of this bill, coupled with the recent cuts in the crime rate, will usher in a sixties-like era of commitment to helping poor people ... This bill will hasten the process and will make possible a commitment to providing jobs and good schools for the inner city that was not possible before."

Upbeat president, glimpsing his place in history: "You really think this will improve racial attitudes, don't you?"

Wise adviser: "I do, and after you sign it, I think the turnaround will be self-evident."

Deal struck. Bill signed. Old welfare system dies.

What's interesting here is the political forecast. Outside the Oval Office, President Clinton's decision to sign the bill was seen as a watershed defeat for liberalism. Here was a Democratic president ending the entitlement program that had served poor children since the Great Depression (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) and replacing it with a regimen of time limits and work requirements. Morris claimed that the opposite was the case. By ending welfare, he said, Clinton wasn't rejecting liberalism; he was clearing the way for its rejuvenated influence over one of its central concerns, ghetto poverty.

As usual, Morris supported his argument with an exotic array of polls--these alleging that taxpayers would spend generously on the poor in a post-welfare era. He turned to the Dakotas, of all places, to bolster his case. After taking a survey of farm state voters, Morris told Clinton that 80 percent would be willing to surrender the ethanol subsidy to finance jobs for welfare recipients.

It's three years later--so how have things worked out? In some ways, Morris' predictions have proven surprisingly prescient. Just a year after signing the bill, Clinton got a Republican Congress to rescind some of its harshest aspects, particularly the reductions in aid to legal immigrants. He pushed through a $ 3 billion program to help the most disadvantaged people on welfare find work. And to some extent, as Morris hoped, "welfare" and "poverty programs" are no longer words that automatically turn the average American sour. No one's rushing to the Mall to sing "We Shall Overcome"--it's not that kind of "sixties-like era." But the civic climate has changed. Ten thousand businesses have joined an organization that promotes the hiring of welfare recipients. Church groups across the country are giving job applicants interview outfits. Chambers of Commerce are posting billboards that challenge the "myths" about people on welfare. For the first time in a long while, anti-poverty work seems to have a tailwind.

But the part of the Morris scenario that definitely has not come to pass is the resurgence of the liberal voice in the poverty debate. On the contrary, there's a bad case of liberal laryngitis going around. There was a time, not that long ago, when liberals were full of confident ideas about poverty. Feeding programs! Legal rights! Head Start! Housing vouchers! As recently as the early '90s, the policy journals and think tanks boiled with new ideas, minor and grand. Expand the earned income tax credit! Replicate the South Shore Bank! Bring back the WPA! Support microenterprise! Health security for all! But during the 1996 welfare debate confidence and creativity were replaced by apocalyptic warnings, and the tradition of liberal anti-poverty thought has yet to recover. If liberals still have a voice on this subject, it's a hoarse whisper, warning that the welfare bill may still leave children sleeping on grates.

The silence of the liberals is particularly unfortunate because this should be a moment of opportunity. The poverty rate is falling. Employment is reaching historic highs. Ghetto life, though still steeped in grief, is finally showing signs of improvement. With the deficit gone, there is money to spend for the first time in 30 years. Faith in government is on the rise. The first Democratic president in two generations (whatever his problems) is finishing his second term. Liberalism--whether neo- or paleo-, principled or poll-driven--has finally rejuvenated itself as a political movement, and it has things to say on any number of policy fronts: saving Social Security, rescuing the environment, educating children, fortifying Medicare. All it seems to lack is something central to its tradition, a plan for the urban poor.

Conservatives, on the other hand, have never had a more confident anti-poverty vision or a more optimistic one. What rising Republican isn't now proclaiming himself a "compassionate conservative?" Granted, much of this consists simply of pointing at the declining welfare rolls to argue, prematurely, that welfare reform has "worked." Still, it is striking how little liberals have to say about the poor while conservatives glow and boast. To the extent that there's a national conversation about poverty, conservatives now control it.

No Expectations

This situation represents a dramatic reversal from a generation ago, when liberals held the franchise on hope about the poor. In the '60s, the basic liberal message was that poor people were as competent as anyone else, but restrained by artificial disadvantage--racial discrimination especially, but also shortages of food, cash, housing, education, and medical care. Offer equal opportunity (voting rights, WIC, food stamps, student loans), liberals argued, and the poor will flourish.

And many did. But progress stalled by the early '70s, and over the next decade it grew increasingly difficult to stay optimistic, especially about the central cities. Those who could leave, did. The problems of those left behind increasingly stretched far beyond the simple shortage of money, into behavioral issues like crime, drugs, and the proliferation of non-marital births. The inner-city poor often became complicit in their own tragedy, in the ways that William Julius Wilson bravely began to untangle more than a decade ago. Liberals grew mute on these issues of culture and conduct, for fear of "blaming the victim." (The uproar over the Moynihan Report is the most famous, but by no means the only, example of the dangers of talking about culture or behavior.) Liberalism knew how to talk about Rosa Parks but not Rosa Lee.

Liberals further constrained their influence when they began to argue that poor people were right to stay on welfare unless or until they got a "good job": no maid work and no Burger King. In most policy quarters, the quest for better jobs was a good thing, an extension of the broader demands by poor people and minorities for new opportunities. And for southern black women in particular, the desire for a good job may have had especially deep roots. For generations they had been exploited as domestics, and they were right to be wary of dead-end arrangements in the workplace.

But as it played out in the welfare debate, the good-jobs philosophy proved problematic. Substantively, it required long or repeated stays in training programs that typically proved ineffective, at least as run at the time. Politically, it discriminated against other low-wage workers and left liberals looking as if they had an inherent pro-welfare bias. As a moment that revealed the underlying dynamic, consider the 1970 exchange in the United States Senate in which Sen. Russell Long of Louisiana griped that he couldn't find anyone to iron his shirts. One welfare rights leader proclaimed: "We only want the kind of jobs that will pay $ 10,000 or $ 20,000! We aren't going to do anybody's laundry!" And the next speaker took the thought further: "You can't force me to work?"

Taken together, these developments--the silence about self-destructive behaviors, the preference for welfare over low-level work--left liberalism with an increasingly pessimistic implied message: Don't expect too much from people in the inner cities. In particular, don't expect them to work--at least not in the kind of entry-level jobs most could actually get. A common liberal move was not to talk about welfare at all, or even poor adults, but instead to try to shift the locus of concern to poor children, who could be presented as totally innocent.

As the liberal voice grew muffled and gloomy, conservatives traveled an opposite path, away from their historic position of resignation or apathy ("the poor ye have always with ye") toward a professed optimism about the inner-city poor. By the mid-'80s, conservative intellectuals like Charles Murray (in his pre-Bell Curve days) and conservative politicians like Jack Kemp began to argue that the poor were as competent as anyone else--but restrained by artificial disadvantage. Only in their view, the artificial disadvantage was anti-poverty programs like welfare--"the liberal Government plantation," as Kemp liked to say. Abolish these programs, conservatives said--and the poor will flourish like anyone else.

For sure, many conservatives didn't really buy this happy vision. In private, some, at least, believed something closer to: "Why should we spend tax money on these people?" And optimism was only part of the message that gave conservatives an advantage. The other was old-fashioned toughness: Straighten up! Work, study, delay child-bearing, get married! Still, by the time of the mid-'90s welfare debate, conservatives weren't just chastising the poor. They were also promising to liberate them--by ending welfare. Liberalism, once the camp of confidence, was left to argue that without welfare, the poor would be unable to cope.

Leaving aside for a moment the question of who's right, it's clear that the confidence and optimism--and therefore the influence--now resides with conservatives. There's nothing inherently wrong with a strong conservative voice (indeed, the early results suggest at least some of their optimism was warranted). But with little liberal presence in the debate on poverty and welfare, there's an automatic imbalance. Conservatives will be inclined to discount the good that government can do for poor people, and to reduce the problems of poor people to the question of whether or not they're on welfare.

To turn Ronald Reagan's famous quip on its head, the standard conservative view has become: "We fought a War on Poverty--and we won!" The rolls are down. The grates are child-free. Q.E.D.

With a Government surplus, a buoyant economy, and mood of public goodwill, there's too much opportunity in the air to leave the public discussion at that.


A reinvigorated poverty debate should begin with the following proposition: the country doesn't have a poverty problem so much as a ghetto problem. To be sure, there are plenty of poor people outside the ghettos, and they have plenty of problems. The biggest one is the dwindling wage that most low-skilled workers can command. (See Frank Levy's piece in this issue.) To that can often be added a lack of health insurance; the shortage of affordable housing in safe neighborhoods; the scarcity of safe, reliable child care. Poverty is bad wherever it resides. But ghetto poverty is uniquely bad.

One reason non-ghetto poverty is a less severe problem is that it's easier to sell politicians and the public on government remedies for it. Social policy these days is filled with examples of expensive but popular anti-poverty programs--if they're for the working poor. The earned-income tax credit now gives low-income workers an annual cash subsidy of up to $ 3,700. And at nearly $ 30 billion a year, it now spends considerably more than the federal welfare program ever did. Yet it has had bipartisan support for 25 years, because its benefits are tied to work.

The same holds for the Children's Health Insurance Program, which will spend $ 24 billion over the next five years to cover the children of low-wage workers. It passed a Republican Congress as a part of a balanced-budget bill! The mother of all social programs, Social Security, is yet another example. It lifts millions of Americans from poverty each year through subsidized pensions and remains the most popular social program in history.

Plus, for all the struggles that low-wage workers endure, they don't call into question the larger promise and purpose of American life in the way that the problems of the ghettos do. The American economy remains the envy of the world, even at its entry-level rungs. Unskilled workers from Ecuador to India still stream into this country eager for a shot at American life. Ghetto poverty is a different story--one that emerged out of the most disturbing elements of American history (slavery and the Jim Crow system in the South), and one that does plant doubts about American life. Even poor people from India don't want to move to Cabrini Green.

By ghetto poverty I mean a condition that defines and envelops whole neighborhoods; continues across generations; and disproportionately affects minorities--historically blacks but increasingly Latinos as well. It's a poverty problem, but it is not exclusively (some would say not even primarily) about economics. It is also about behavior: weak labor-force attachment; non-marriage; low levels of education; high rates of out-of-wedlock births; drug use, and violent crime. It concerns a kind of social disorder that often alienates the ghetto poor from the broader traditions and aspirations of American society.

Not everyone who lives in a poor, inner-city neighborhood succumbs to these conditions, of course. Many work, study, and marry, and some manage to leave. (Indeed, part of the important work now for liberals is to explore and expand the pathways out.) But the nature of ghetto life is such that the odds are highly stacked against the people who live there, much more so than for the poor in general.

Why is this the more serious poverty problem? For one reason, the central cities impose an unparalleled barrage of hardships on the people who live there, especially in terms of neighborhood violence. Two, the conditions in the ghettos are uniquely destructive outside the ghettos as well; they rend the broader civic fabric. Members of the middle-class organize their lives so they, and their children, can avoid the central cities. Plus, the ghettos leave the broader society with an exaggerated distrust of government, whose social-policy successes tend to remain invisible while its failures (like public housing and welfare) lead the evening news. And finally, the suffering of central cities has had had a poisonous effect on race relations generally, generating a toxic distrust on both sides of the racial divide. There are hundreds of examples, but here's just one: the half-serious debate in black radio, television, and bookstores about whether AIDS was invented in government labs as a weapon of white racial Conquest. If poor blacks are suffering this severely, the thinking goes, it must be the result of some kind of plan.

Think of the titles of some of the prominent works on ghetto life: American Apartheid, There Are No Children Here, The Truly Disadvantaged, The Promised Land. They describe a state of affairs that's not just unfortunate but downright Un-American.

Move On

Conservatives tend to think of addressing the problems of the ghettos solely in terms of ending welfare. On their terms, things are off to a good start. The rolls are down dramatically. (Nationwide, they've fallen about 40 percent from their 1994 peaks.) Employment levels are high. (Former welfare recipients appear to be finding jobs at or above the usual rates for people coming off welfare.) And so far, the adverse effects have been more limited than the critics feared. "Limited" does not mean non-existent. Without welfare, there are more families heading into food banks and shelters. And in some places (including Wisconsin, where the caseload reductions have been most extreme) there appear to be more children heading into relatives' care. Still, this is far short of the apocalypse conjured in the liberal imagination. Liberals have rightly argued that it's too soon to fully measure the negative consequences that may accompany the new time limits and work requirements. The economy is unusually strong. In most places the time limits won't kick in for several more years. And lives don't unravel all at once: the ranks of truly destitute families may well grow with time. Part of liberalism's mission is to worry about the very worst-off members of society, and today's advocates are right to do so. But liberals will be missing a big opportunity if they spend the next few years simply waiting for children to appear on the grates.

The bigger role that liberals could play is to monitor the contention that simply moving people from welfare to work will solve the problems of the ghettos. It's entirely possible that welfare reform could succeed in pushing poor, single mothers to rely more on wages and less on government aid--but still leave them stuck in awful, central-city neighborhoods, with many of the same difficulties as before. Welfare reformers like to think that work inherently leaves families better off, with more money and better "role models" for the children. And at one level, they're probably right: most poor women say they feel better about themselves when they go work. But there's nothing that says the payoff from going to work, by itself, is large enough to fundamentally alter the inner-city. It won't necessarily reduce crime, raise the school achievements of children, or bring back two-parent families. And getting a job doesn't necessarily give someone in the ghetto the chance to move out.

By now we've all been so conditioned to equate the problems of the ghettos with welfare, it's worth explaining how even a successful welfare-to-work program might bring only minor improvements to central-city life. For one thing, welfare reform has done virtually nothing to engage inner-city men. They remain a powerful, and often negative, force in neighborhood and family life. For a poor child, whether Mom gets her money from Burger King or from public aid is probably a less important question than whether there's a stable Dad. (Indeed, in a single-parent family a working Mom may mean less-supervised kids.) For another, the housing opportunities for low-income single mothers remain limited, even when they go to work. In part that's for economic reasons: housing costs have risen much faster than wages; many families simply can't afford to leave. And there are non-economic barriers to leaving too. The inner cities are filled with people, particularly women, who are afraid to drive in the suburbs, never mind move there. In Milwaukee, the city where I've spent the most time, I've had two women in recent weeks ask me to drive them to Wal-Mart on payday. Even though they had cars of their own, they were nervous about police harassment if they were seen driving alone.

Put differently, the good news about welfare may be that it mattered less than we thought: people can get by without it. But the bad news may be the same as the good news: people can get by without it. A poor, single mother can scrape and hustle and patch together a string of dead-end jobs. She can keep having troubled relationships with sporadically employed men, many of whom move in and out of jail. She can rely on other government programs. All of this would leave her to be counted a success in the narrow terms of the welfare debate, without having achieved any kind of meaningful upward mobility.

This is where liberals should get back into the debate: rather than simply warning about the coming failure of welfare reform, they should try to build on its successes to achieve a bigger victory. For starters, they should challenge, in a thoughtful way, the conservatives' instinctive hostility toward social programs for the ghettos. As it happens, some of that hostility is waning anyway: with money in the bank, and conditions brightening, the Right is no longer as quick to regard every initiative as a doomed, wasteful affair, as it did a few years ago. Indeed, in the ghettos themselves, some programs do seem to "work." In housing, community groups funded by government have learned how to deliver safe, decent, affordable housing (see Robert Worths piece in this issue). There are similar bright spots in the police and education worlds. Conservatives are inclined to see these as triumphs merely of toughness or standards. They are also triumphs of government action, and liberalism would offer a service by teasing out the lessons of the successes more fully than the conservatives are likely to do.

Another cause for liberals to embrace is that of economic progress for low-wage workers--turning job placement into job advancement. In particular, liberals need to look for new and more effective ways to deliver training. (One approach to consider is to pay training programs only after they place clients in jobs or raise their wages.) Virtually every welfare program in the country now has a "work-first" philosophy: get a job, any job, and never mind training. Conservatives defend this approach by arguing that even low-paid work pays better than welfare. (And it usually does.) And they tend to assume that as long as workers stay on the job, progress will take care of itself--"a job, a better job, a career," as the motto of one welfare program goes. But for lots of low-wage workers, it just doesn't work out that way. They can easily start at $ 6.00 an hour and spend years working their way up to ... oh, $ 6.50 or so. That's especially the case in a niche of the labor market where part-time and temporary work is the norm.

For liberals to succeed here, they'll have to surrender their previous bias against entry-level work. For people on welfare (most of whom have already struggled in the classroom), the training needn't come at the front end. There's nothing wrong with flipping burgers--for a while. The key is to find ways to ensure that even entry-level work can carry with it a reasonable chance for advancement.

A final cause for liberals in the aftermath of welfare reform should be residential mobility. Crime control, better education, and housing programs may well make the ghettos more livable. But most families will still want to get out--to move to places with more jobs, better schools, less violence, and more helpful social networks. Real estate remains one of the last bastions of flagrant discrimination. Helping poor minority families gain a toehold in the suburbs does not rank high as a conservative concern. It doesn't even rank high as a liberal concern. But it should.

By itself, ending welfare probably won't solve the problems of the ghettos. But it could be a building block to a broader solution. A decade ago, the central cities seemed permanently lost, and the politics of poverty policy was paralyzed and sour. The situation is now healthier on every front: urban pathology is down; the economy is up; and the public mood has brightened. Conservatives aren't going to lead a new charge to fix the central cities. But welfare reform has left the most thoughtful conservatives newly interested in, and sympathetic to, the struggles of the poor. This is a moment of distinct opportunity. It would be a tragedy--for liberals, for the ghettos, and for the country--if the silence of the liberals were to continue.

JASON DEPARLE is a reporter for The New York Times.








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