From the 1970s through the mid-1990s, poverty policy was among the nastiest battlefields in the national culture war. Left and right slugged it out over why people were poor and how (or whether) to help them. Conservatives generally enjoyed the upper hand in these debates by focusing on individual-level causes of poverty, like family breakdown, drug addiction, and poor work habits -- pathologies said to be enabled by government largesse. This story line struck a chord with the American public, helping ensure the demise of the federal welfare entitlement and the introduction of strict work requirements in 1996.
But since then, a structural understanding of poverty has come back in vogue, fueled by more awareness of globalization and dead-end jobs. Popular books like Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed and Beth Shulman's The Betrayal of Work have drawn a fresh picture of the poor -- as mostly hardworking Americans who can't make ends meet through no fault of their own.
The two dominant, differing explanations of poverty -- individual versus systemic -- seem to forever define the national debate over social policy. And proponents of one view or the other seem forever loath to cede even the slightest ground. For many progressives, talk of personal responsibility amounts to blaming the victim and letting a low-wage Wal-Mart economy off the hook. For conservatives, there is still too much coddling by the welfare state; the story is all about personal values, and, if anything, America should get even tougher on the poor.
This ideological stalemate is typical of why, as the columnist E.J. Dionne once wrote, "Americans hate politics." To ordinary people, both sides in the poverty debate often seem in denial about obvious truths. And that sentiment is exactly correct: Individual and systemic factors both explain poverty. Yes, capitalism produces large numbers of economic losers, and especially lately, as the left suggests. But it is also clear that personal agency and cultural norms can influence economic success, as the right suggests. It makes plenty of sense to debate which cause of poverty is most important. What doesn't make sense is to wholly dismiss one explanation in favor of another.
Looking ahead, the winning ideas for reducing poverty will change individual attitudes and create more widely shared prosperity. Is this so complicated? Libertarians and evangelicals are fixated on personal responsibility -- to the point of being woefully naive about the realities of our global age. But progressives and moderates should be capable of clearer thinking, too. We all have every reason to embrace a nuanced understanding of poverty, as well as to move such common sense to the center of public policy.
Right wingers like Charles Murray did not invent the idea that individual or cultural factors can determine success. Nor was it Jack Kemp who first said that personal empowerment was a key to getting out of poverty. Liberals can claim a large share of credit for both these notions. From the earliest days of the labor movement, progressives championed the virtuous ideals of self-improvement and hard work. Many of the signature social policies of the 20th century -- like Pell Grants and the GI Bill -- sought to reward personal striving, not give handouts.
A basic premise of modern psychology (also largely a liberal enterprise) is that a person's success is not governed by material conditions alone. Family background, cultural influences, mental health -- each can affect how well we cope with the challenges of life. All of us know people from affluent backgrounds who have slid downward economically because of personal problems -- overly indulgent parents, an expensive divorce, a bad drug habit, untreated depression, or whatnot. We also know people who have risen far above their origins through willpower and smart choices.
Studies on social mobility find that class status at birth largely determines life chances, and that this correlation has actually intensified in recent years. This reality favors the liberal side of the argument. But the link is not ironclad; there are plenty of exceptions. As the sociologist Dalton Conley showed in his book The Pecking Order, large income gaps often exist among siblings raised in the same household. More broadly, a growing body of research underscores the pivotal role of family structure in determining household earnings. Men and women can both reduce their chances of being poor by delaying parenthood, by not parenting children out of wedlock, and by getting married and staying married -- just like they can reduce their chances of being poor by graduating from high school, staying sober, and setting the alarm every night.
All of this is easier said than done, of course -- especially if you've grown up against a backdrop of economic and social despair, in neighborhoods with high unemployment, rampant crime, violent husbands, and terrible schools. It is foolish to suggest that everyone can triumph against high odds if he or she just exercises personal responsibility. But it is equally foolish to suggest that no one can beat the odds, or to ignore the role of individual agency in doing so.
Both sides should agree on one thing, even if they argue about the details: the idea that poor people can empower themselves and change their own lives. Long before George W. Bush picked up on the empowerment mantra of Jack Kemp and others, arguing in a 1999 speech that "real change in our culture comes from the bottom up, not the top down," activist groups like the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and the Industrial Areas Foundation were saying the same thing -- and acting on it. Similarly, early civil-rights leaders stressed self-respect and personal strength as keys to social change. The first critiques of the old welfare state as disempowering and paternalistic came from liberals, not conservatives.
A strange irony of the poverty wars is that conservatives brought empowerment into the political mainstream while liberals often cast the poor as the helpless victims. All the more ironic is that the left ceded the empowerment mantle even as thousands of community groups and faith organizations forged new antipoverty strategies -- such as community-development corporations and microcredit lending -- that strongly embrace an ethos of self-help, trying to change attitudes as well as opportunities.
A New Synthesis
The poverty debate needs to come full circle, getting beyond the tug-of-war between structuralist liberals and moralistic conservatives. Poverty is a complex phenomenon, as the journalist David Shipler so well described it in his nuanced 2004 book, The Working Poor. Pushing individuals to make better life choices and feel empowered won't succeed by itself in radically reducing poverty. Nor will economic and social policy reforms. If America had to choose between these two approaches, I'd vote for a structural approach. Much poverty -- in particular among the elderly, the disabled, and low-wage workers -- could be eliminated with better government policies.
But we don't have to choose. Instead, as Shipler suggested, we can and should forge an antipoverty strategy that "recognizes both the society's obligation through government and business, and the individual's obligation through labor and family." What would this synthesis mean in practice? Certainly a substantial expansion of government -- by creating a system of universal health insurance, raising Supplemental Security Insurance income payments, and ensuring access to early-childhood education, to name just three much-needed steps. A true societal commitment to reducing poverty would also mean concessions from business, in the form of both a higher minimum wage and a broad acceptance of labor unions, and other policy changes that would redistribute profits downward and outward.
As for pushing individuals to meet their obligations, such an agenda would include new and existing efforts to reduce teen pregnancy, obligate fathers to support their children, demand work from all who are able, help troubled married couples resolve their differences, teach financial literacy, and encourage savings.
If a synthesis of personal and mutual responsibility sounds familiar, that's because it is: Bill Clinton articulated such a vision when he ran for president in 1992. Clinton never achieved the centerpiece of his "New Covenant" -- universal health insurance -- and he went on to sign a badly flawed welfare-reform law. But he did achieve a historic expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, now the largest antipoverty program for the non-elderly, as well as a long economic boom that raised incomes for the poorest fifth of U.S. households. As a result, poverty rates for certain groups, such as children and African Americans, fell sharply in the late 1990s for the first time in decades. Clinton's vision combined personal and social explanations and strategies. It resonated with voters. And a bolder version of this approach could rally liberals and conservatives alike to help America to end poverty at last.