POVERTY WITHOUT RACE. I'm intrigued by E.J. Dionne's column today because it strikes me as such a clear example of the latest trend in liberal anti-poverty writing and thinking, which is to talk about the poor without any reference to race. Writes E.J.:
All manner of politicians and columnists said in Katrina's wake that this was the time to revisit the problems of the destitute. The anguish of the people of New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward would have at least some redemptive power if the country took poverty seriously again.
It didn't happen. The innovative ideas that came from all sides were swept off the table. The poor became unfashionable once more. Congressional conservatives changed the conversation. A concern for the struggling gave way to debate over how to offset spending on Katrina with budget cuts -- directed in large part at programs for the needy.
Poverty in America is unequally distributed, according to the latest from the Census (PDF): Last year, the poverty rate for non-Hispanic whites was 8.3 percent, down from 8.7 percent in 2004, but the rate for African-Americans was 24.9 percent -- an increase from 24.7 percent in 2004. And to the extent that median income inched upwards last year -- something we've heard a great deal about over the past few days -- that occurred despite a decline in the median income for African-Americans during the same time period. Whites, Asians, and Hispanics all saw their median income nudge up between 2004 and 2005, but African-Americans did not share in that positive trend.
Now, there's an admirable movement afoot in liberal policy circles, led by John Edwards, and pushed along by writers like E.J. and TAP's own Ezra Klein, to revive poverty as a major progressive agenda item. Yet this movement co-exists uneasily with a counter-movement by other progressive writers and thinkers to wrest progressivism and the Democratic Party away from "interest group liberalism," or at least the sort that's defined both since Lyndon Johnson's day. I fear that these two movements run counter to each other in a really fundamental way, because to the extent that the original war on poverty succeeded and was able to create enduring social programs, it was as an institutional expression of a broader cultural movement for social equality and -- if you'll forgive the use of that tired, old phrase -- social justice. It's no accident that the last major national push against poverty coincided with the civil rights movement and the birth of feminism: All were expressions of a broader ethos and parts of a broader movement against old social hierarchies and an existing social order that was unjust. The civil rights movement's moral aims strengthened the anti-poverty movement's economic ones, and they were both part of a bigger struggle to create a more just American society.
Divorcing talk of poverty from talk about the other kinds of inequalities that still haunt America is an interesting and rather novel phenomenon on the left. And I can see the argument for trying to turn poverty into a conscience issue that transcends identity politics or the needs of specific groups, especially as Democrats are often wrongly perceived as being all about specific groups and not the public as a whole. (Indeed, it sometimes seems as though, in order to talk about poverty, race has to be shunted aside, because the moment race is brought into the conversation, everyone turns into a conservative and starts talking about marriage rates and personal responsibility and "the culture of failure.") On the other hand, I have trouble imagining how any politician can convince the American public to take poverty seriously again in the absence of widespread concern about social inequality and a direct accounting of how poverty is actually experienced by Americans.