September 3, 1985
"Government Aid a Cushion, not a Trap, for the Poor"
San Jose Mercury News
By Timothy Taylor
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THE poverty rate fell from 15.3 percent in 1983 to 14.4 percent in 1984, the
Census Bureau announced this week. The decline was the largest since 1968 and
the first significant fall since 1976. It will fuel a firestorm of debate over
how best to attack poverty.
Patrick Buchanan, the president's director of communications, called the report
"a triumph for Reagan policies, a triumph for Reagan philosophy." But
given the record, he was pushing credibility a bit. The Reagan administration
inherited an increasing poverty rate, which rose steadily from a 1978 low of 11.4
percent to its 1983 high.
While this year's reversal is welcome, it was accomplished in a year of boom
economic growth. With the economy growing only 1 percent faster than inflation
this year, claiming a "triumph" takes both confidence and precognition.
The philosophy behind Buchanan's response was outlined in "Losing Ground:
American Social Policy 1950-1980," by Charles Murray. Murray writes that
between 1950 and 1969, the poverty rate fell from 30.2 percent to 12.1 percent.
During that time, the government spent relatively little on transfer payments
to the poor. In the late 1960s, the "Great Society" programs were developed
to fight poverty. Spending on those programs doubled in real dollars from 1969
to 1980, and the poverty rate in 1980 was 13 percent.
Murray concluded that anti-poverty programs aren't helping the poor, a conclusion
that found a powerful resonance in Washington. The New York Times editorialized
in February, when the budget was being written, "In agency after agency,
officials cite the Murray book as a philosophical base for... deep reductions
in education, child nutrition, and housing assistance, and elimination of programs
like Job Corps." Meg Greenfield reported in Newsweek that budget cutters
said they had "Murrayed" programs.
Murray argues the merits of eliminating all federal anti- poverty programs
except for unemployment insurance, which is the direction the budget could be
headed. Spending on federal means-tested programs to assist the poor -- Supplemental
Security Income, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Medicaid, school lunches,
earned income tax credit, refugee assistance, and housing and energy assistance
-- stayed constant in real dollars between 1980 and 1985, according to the House
Republican Research Committee. The originally proposed 1986 budget would erode
those programs 14 percent by 1988.
A fundamental tension does exist within the concept of charity. On one hand,
it is a fundamental moral commandment to help other humans in need. On the other,
it is also a fundamental principle to respect those you are helping, and to help
them respect themselves.
In Murray's view, enormous government anti-poverty programs have stripped the
poor of self-respect, made them dependent, and encouraged pathologies of poverty
like illegitimacy, crime, dropping out of school and quitting jobs. He argues
that increasing these programs will only drag more people into dependency.
Murray asks a valid empirical question, makes a valid philosophical argument
and reaches a tempting conclusion. But he's wrong. The relationship between poverty
and government spending is not as simple as he claims, and economic and demographic
changes are the prime contributors to today's American poverty.
Although it started from a low base, federal social spending exploded in the
1950s and early 1960s, doubling from 1953 to 1961, and doubling again between
1961 and 1969. But powerful economic growth reduced poverty, despite what Murray
would call a growing "disincentive" for the poor to seek work.
More recent experience doesn't bear out Murray's thesis either. As William
O'Hare of the Population Reference Bureau pointed out, the freeze on federal welfare
spending actually started in 1977, and that's just about when the poverty rate
started rising. Further, inflation eroded AFDC benefits throughout the 1970s and
cuts eroded them further in 1981. Robert Moffett of Rutgers University found that
decline did not change the work effort of welfare mothers.
In theory, it may make sense that welfare would cause poor people to avoid
work, but it doesn't seem to be true in practice. Shelton Danziger of the University
of Wisconsin's Institute for Research on Poverty calculated that leaving aside
the elderly, the disabled, students and mothers with children under the age of
6, two-thirds of the heads of poor households work at least part-time. Other data
show that half work full-time.
Danziger concluded, "The numbers show that poverty is far more a problem
of job availability than work ethic.... Obviously, there are some bums out there.
But, mostly, people are working or looking for work."
The poor affirmed their desire to work in a recent nationwide Los Angeles Times
poll, where they supported "workfare" -- requiring eligible poor people
to work at government jobs in exchange for assistance -- by a larger majority
than the non-poor.
Eventually, most of the poor escape poverty by their own efforts, contrary
to the myth of a permanent "underclass." Murray and other conservatives
tend to presume the poor are trapped by government programs; liberals tend to
assume they are trapped by the lack of government help and economic opportunities.
The Census Bureau does not collect evidence on how long people are trapped
below the poverty line, but the University of Michigan's Survey Research Center
does. Greg Duncan described their findings in "Years of Poverty, Years of
Plenty," and found that about a quarter of the U.S. population fell below
the poverty line for at least one year during the 1970s.
But only 2.6 percent of the population was "persistently poor," according
to the Michigan researchers. That group is more than three-fifths black, predominantly
female, in inner city ghettos and rural Southern counties, in desperate trouble.
But most of those below the poverty line are there for only a year or two.
They fall into poverty because of unemployment, because a wage earner (usually
husband or teen-ager) leaves the rest of the family, because a woman has a child
and can no longer work.
Duncan writes, "On the whole, the main difference between them and the
rest of the population was that they had experienced one or two bad years."
This group leaves poverty upon marrying or getting a new job.
This group of working poor with children is a new development. Over the last
two decades the number of impoverished elderly has fallen by about 2 million while
the number of poor increased by more than 6 million. Meanwhile, the number of
poor in families without husbands increased by 6 million, and the number of poor
children under the age of 18 increased by 1 million.
A government program -- Social Security -- has been the main reason for reduced
poverty among the elderly. But a lot of folks besides Charles Murray have noticed
that other anti- poverty programs haven't worked as well. The Los Angeles Times
poll found that a majority of both the poor and the non- poor believe that government
anti-poverty programs have "seldom" worked.
When the Census Bureau released its figures, President Reagan responded predictably
enough, saying that the fall demonstrated that "the greatest enemy of poverty
is the free enterprise system." That's true, but not all of the truth.
The fast-moving, fast-changing U.S. economy and society generate new opportunities
every year, but also seem to discard a certain number of people who are able and
willing to work. The poverty statistics for the last decade demonstrate that just
about as quickly as one person climbs out of poverty, another falls in.
Obviously, the government should promote economic growth and opportunity, but
how best to do that is a separate and controversial topic. The 1985 poverty level
will probably decline again, as previously poor people who got jobs during the
1984 boom earn money during a full year. But this year's flat economy won't provide
many opportunities for the more than 30 million people currently below the poverty
How should society treat those who have "one or two bad years?" Since
the late 1970s, the trend has been to freeze or cut back federal assistance, usually
to reduce "fraud and abuse" or to maintain only a "safety net"
for the "truly needy," even as the poverty rate increased.
Of course, all programs should be run with as little fraud as possible. But
for the elderly, for children, for mothers with young children and for the disabled,
cutbacks to provide a work incentive make no sense. The elderly will not become
young, children will not age enough to work, the disabled will not be magically
healed because the government cuts off support payments.
Cutbacks that hit the able-bodied poor make little sense either. The "safety
net" is a good analogy, although often misused. People will fall into and
climb out of poverty in our capitalist society, but government assistance programs
determine how hard that fall will be, for the worker and dependents. Programs
like food stamps, school lunches and Medicaid can reduce hunger and improve health,
even if they do not "solve" poverty.
This evidence argues that in its attempts to ease the harshness of poverty
and hasten the transition of the poor out of poverty, there is little reason to
worry that government assistance will trap the poor into lives of dependency.
By their own efforts, the poor are demonstrating that even fairly short-term poverty
softened by government assistance is a plight they are more than anxious to escape.
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