Of course, poverty comes in different forms. Some Americans (the Episodic poor) slip below the poverty line for a limited time after experiencing some kind of economic crisis usually as a result of the loss of the breadwinner for the family due to layoff, death, divorce, or illness. The Cyclical poor are people who move in and out of poverty on a regular basis. Finally, the Chronically poor are people living below the poverty line for eighty percent or more of the time for five years or longer even though they work most of the time but at very low paying jobs.William Oswald, an Associate Professor at Springfield College in Springfield, Mass, published an excellent article in 2005 entitled “The Poverty Trap.” Oswald notes that poverty is a trap. Once a person or family slips below the poverty line, even for a short period, it is extremely difficult to get out. The Chronic poor are particularly trapped.
So, why do some Americans become Chronically poor? There are two competing theories. One theory (the Structural Theory) is that people get trapped in Chronic poverty because of structural changes in the economy that results in a “labor market mismatch.” The Chronic poor become and remain poor because they are unskilled or under-skilled and the economy changes in such a way that increasingly they are few low-skilled jobs for which they qualify. Those jobs that they can obtain are very low wage jobs and they lack reasonable access to education, training and other support that might enable them to develop the ability to compete for higher wage jobs. Additionally, they tend to be concentrated in poverty stricken areas where jobs are scarce and are continually becoming scarcer due to a failing local economy that gets progressively worse over time. Finally, they lack the access to transportation to jobs out of their neighborhood or funds to move to other areas of the country where jobs might be more plentiful.An alternative explanation for chronic poverty is called the “Culture of Poverty Theory.” This theory argues that people become and remain chronically poor because of their behavior. Poverty is personal. This theory says people slip into poverty because they have certain behavioral characteristics, notably “resignation, dependence, present-time orientation, lack of impulse control, weak ego structure, sexual confusion, and the inevitable inability to defer gratification.” (Oswald, p. 3) Children learn these destructive behaviors from their parents, according to this theory. As a result, they become poverty-stricken themselves as adults.
These two theories of why poverty exists lead to two different approaches to government efforts to deal with chronic poverty.Those who adopt the Structural Theory advocate programs to change the economic structure to increase opportunity for people who are trapped in poverty. That includes launching programs like the New Deal Work Projects Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, National Youth Administration, Farm Security Administration, the National Recovery Administration, and the Public Works Administration that created jobs for the chronically poor. In addition, those who see poverty as a result of the economic structure seek to adopt programs like the War on Poverty VISTA domestic peace corps and Community Action Program that sought to help the disadvantaged poor build political bases as well as programs like Head Start, the Job Corp, and pubic television programs like Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers that sought to give the chronic poor and others the education and other tools for upward mobility.
Those who see poverty as a result of a defective culture take a totally different approach to a government response. They favor programs like the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. The assumption of these programs is that government assistance to the poor such as those advocated by advocates of the Structural Theory create a dependence on government. Poor people, under this theory, need a strong dose of tough love that will force the to take personal responsibility. Under this view, people in poverty must be forced out. Government assistance should be hard to get and hard to maintain beyond a limited period. This is particularly true of the generational poor—families that live in poverty for several generations. These generational poor, argue the advocates of the Culture of Poverty theory, have developed an attitude that society somehow owes them a living. They must be re-educated or re-condition to think differently. They must learn the “hidden rules of middle class behavior” that they are severely lacking. Once they learn the rules then the chronic poor will be able to easily move out of poverty once and for all by taking advantage of the great opportunities American society offers to all who are willing to work hard.Of course, Republicans largely favor the “Culture of Poverty” theory while Democrats are much more likely to contribute chronic poverty to the economic structure.
It is easy to see why most Republicans would favor the Culture of Poverty approach. After all, it is consistent with their desire for smaller government. If the poor are poor because of their bad behaviors then assisting them only encourages a continuation of those bad behaviors. Republicans, in fact, argue that government safety net programs actually create a “culture of dependency.” Additionally, the Culture of Poverty explanation supports the Republican believe that American is the land of opportunity where we can all be Horato Algers who might be born in poverty but can find success through hard work alone. America’s poor, so the argument goes, are exceedingly fortunate to live in a country that provides equal opportunity for all and always rewards hard work. The poor need not be poor. Nothing stands in their way but their own bad behavior, their own personal failings. Indeed, if this is true, then helping the poor is the wrong thing to do. Instead of a hand up or worse yet a hand out, what the poor need is just a good kick in the seat of their pants to get them up out of their lazy chairs and working. Our motto should not be “we feed the hungry,” but rather “he who will not work, will not eat.”Democrats are not opposed to the poor working. However, they ask, how can a person work if there are no jobs or if they lack the skills to perform the jobs that do exist? How can those in chronic poverty find their way out, if their schools are failing, the infrastructure where they live is falling apart so no business wants to locate there, and they lack the money, knowledge or ability to relocate to someplace that might offer them more job opportunities or public transportation systems to enable them to get to work. How can the poor make their way out of poverty if they are trapped in neighborhoods so crime ridden that they dare not venture outdoors for long. How can the poor make their way out of poverty if they are sick and have no access to affordable healthcare or if they are addicted to alcohol or drugs and have no access to treatment programs? How can children born into poverty make their way out if their mothers get poor or no pre-natal care, they don’t receive adequate nutrition when their brains or developing, no one bothers even to read to them when they are young, they have no Headstart program to help them prepare to learn, and the schools they are able to attend are crumbling for lack of maintenance and staffed by teachers who are underpaid, under trained, and under appreciated? Democrats say most people who are poor don’t want to be poor. Most of the poor want to work and move up the economic ladder. Most of the poor want something better for themselves and particularly for their children. However, they are stuck in a cycle of poverty. Poverty stricken areas where most poor people live aren’t attractive locations for private sector businesses that might create jobs to put people to work. Poverty is a trap and, as Oswald and other researchers have reported, the further one slips into poverty and the longer one stays there the more difficult it is to get out without a lot of help. Contrary to the Republican belief that America is a land of limitless opportunity it is not. Opportunity depends upon where you stand on the economic spectrum. As Tom Zeller, in one of the articles I cite below, notes: “Americans by in large like to believe that the nation provides ample opportunity for the truly motivated to rise—pulling oneself up by their bootstraps, as the saying goes. Research shows that’s simply not the case. In fact, American children born either rich, or poor, are more likely than children in other developed countries to maintain that station into adulthood.” The rich in America generally stay rich. The poor stay poor. And, the middle class always has limited prospects for moving up but significant risk of slipping downward.
Reducing chronic poverty--What works and what doesn’t?Structural-oriented programs designed to address poverty like the New Deal and War on Poverty programs I mentioned earlier have generally had a significant impact on reducing the poverty rate while Culture of Poverty-oriented programs have generally had little impact other than locking poor Americans out of social safety net programs such as Food Stamps. At the height of the Depression, 80% of Americans lived in poverty according to some estimates. New Deal programs brought the poverty rate to less than 50%. When Kennedy was elected in 1960 the poverty rate was estimated to have been around 22%. War on Poverty programs brought the rate down to below 15% and it has fluctuated between 12% and 15% since then. “Culture of Poverty” programs adopted during the Clinton years and later under Republican administrations have failed to have much of an impact on further reducing the percentage of Americans living in poverty, although they have eliminated or greatly reduced access to social-safety net programs for many of the Chronic poor.
We need to return to addressing poverty as a structural problem rather than one of bad behavior. We need a New New Deal or a New War On Poverty. What do you think?
The following are two excellent articles about the problem of poverty with citations and references to other sources on the topic. I recommend them highly.