The Other America, as Seen in New Orleansby Dan Morgan | September 3, 2005
In watching the tragic human stories in New Orleans, one thing that the country is waking up to is this: There are a lot of poor black people in America. Yes, everyone already knew this. But seeing all these people, many who were surely too poor to evacuate the city before the storm, brings the fact of widespread black poverty back into focus.
In 1962 Michael Harrington wrote the famous and moving book, The Other America. This book woke America up to the ongoing poverty amidst plenty, and it helped inspire the Great Society programs that had the ambitious dream of ending poverty in America.
Unfortunately, since the 1960s, few new ideas have emerged that have proven effective in lowering poverty rates among the poor, including among poor blacks. Worse, even after considerable spending on social programs and direct transfer payments to the poor, the official poverty rate has not budged since 1970. It has been stuck at around 12.5%.
Despite all the spending on anti-poverty programs, in the trillions of dollars since 1970, progress has just not happened. Many argue that what has happened is that welfare has replaced work among many of the poor. So whatever gains in income and services that have occurred due to welfare transfer payments - they have been offset by the loss of income from poor people working less hours.
It is very hard to argue that the Great Society programs have been a big success. The poverty rate has not gone down - the main goal of the Great Society programs. But worse yet, the very fiber of poor communities, especially poor black communities, has unraveled. This unraveling occurred coincident in time with the ramping up of funding for the Great Society programs. Could this just be an uncanny coincidence? No one can say with absolute certainty, since there is no statistical model that can exactly predict what causes some groups of people to be poor.
The unraveling that has occurred in the black inner cities is well known. Out-of-wedlock birth rates have skyrocketed. By 2003 the rate for all blacks reached 68% compared to 24% in 1965. But the rate is higher in black inner cities; two-parent families have become uncommon. Single-parent families are the leading cause of poverty in America, regardless of one’s race.
Meanwhile crime, especially violent crime, skyrocketed in poor black urban areas. Unemployment rates shot up and labor force participation rates went down. Welfare dependency became a major problem. Large numbers of black men became alienated from work, from the children that they had fathered, and from the mother’s of these children. Gangs of males terrorized black communities and also killed each other in large numbers. And prisons filled up with black men in an effort to contain the waves of violent crime. All of this is old news, still unfolding news, and always distressing news.
You have to ask yourself: If you set clear goals for a group of social programs, and every social indicator of health within poor communities gets worse - how can you ever know if you are actually helping poor people? Can programs really be divorced from results? Can programs be run on simply a matter of faith that they must be helping people, even though all social indicators say the communities receiving the assistance have deteriorated?
Ironically, the most successful policy for helping the poor since the 1970s, after all the Great Society programs became fully institutionalized - is the 1994 welfare reform. This, in a way, is an anti-Great Society program. It recognized the limits of simply giving people welfare money as long as they did not earn too much. Common sense says that there is an incentive in welfare benefits to work less. The Great Society mentality had rejected this idea as being backward. The thinking was that people would work if they could - and it was nonsense to think that people would work less hard, or fewer hours, because you gave them some welfare money or other benefits (health care, food stamps, housing, etc.). Many still believe this.
Welfare reform has been a major success in the efforts to find what works to help the poor. Many people who were not working, or not working very much, suddenly found jobs and worked much more. Poverty rates dropped and, importantly, child poverty rates went down.
Having said all of this, what America needs is new ideas on fighting poverty. The aging Great Society-type solutions have clearly fallen far short of what is desired. Does anyone really believe that just pumping more money into existing programs is going to significantly reduce poverty rates? The poor black people you see in New Orleans, like millions of other poor blacks across America, don’t need more of the same. They need something very different; they need something better; they need something that works.
What is needed is some outside-of-the-box thinking that avoids the pitfalls of the Great Society programs. Have we learned anything about what actually works to reduce poverty? Or is this Rubik’s Cube too complex for America to solve?