Sustainable Social Policy: Fighting Poverty Without Poverty Programs

What to do about poverty is, once again, on the public agenda in the United States. A decade ago, social researchers and research-funders, stung by the backlash against the War on Poverty, averted their attention from race-related social ills. Then Charles Murray's rightwing broadside against social programs in Losing Ground (1984) provoked critics to reenter the fray, and William Julius Wilson's The Truly Disadvantaged (1987) revalidated discussion of "the underclass" by progressives.

This renewal of controversy is good news for citizens interested in doing more to fight poverty. But there are also reasons to worry Public discussion today, while less optimistic than in the 1960s, is repeating many themes and assumptions of the War on Poverty and Great Society. Policy makers then attributed poverty in part to behavioral problems and cultural deficiencies that they hoped special training and community action programs for the poor could correct. Similarly, the welfare reform consensus of the mid-1980s quickly converged on the notion that mandated work and job training could best alleviate poverty. To be sure, there are differences; policy makers today are more willing to make welfare contingent on work. As ever, conservatives want to discipline welfare clients, while liberals want to deliver more training, health care, and child care to the underprivileged. But almost everyone seems to think, now as before, that programs targeted to the poor are the best way to proceed.

Universal versus Targeted Policies
Amidst the chorus of welfare reformers, a few voices sing a different melody. They tell us that social provision in the United States should emphasize universal programs -- that is, programs that benefit all citizens, not only racial minorities or the poor.

William Julius Wilson argues this position forcefully in The Truly Disadvantaged, a book that embodies a paradoxical dual message that needs to be heard in its entirety. The first part of the message has gotten across: Wilson calls for renewed attention to the multiple pathologies and special problems of the inner-city black underclass, who constitute about ten percent of Americans below the official poverty line. But the second part of Wilson's message does not follow simple-mindedly from the first. In his book and in the pages of this journal (see "Race- Neutral Programs and the Democratic Coalition," TAP, Spring 1990), Wilson sharply criticizes racially specific measures to aid blacks exclusively as well as redistributive programs that help only lower-income people. Racially targeted policies primarily aid socially advantaged blacks, Wilson argues, while benefits or services restricted to the poor cannot generate sustained political support. Instead, Wilson advocates improving "the life chances of groups such as the ghetto underclass by emphasizing programs... [to] which the more advantaged groups of all races can positively relate."

Supporters of targeted antipoverty policies criticize such calls for universal programs as being expensive and politically unrealistic. The American public, the critics say, will not pay taxes to finance such programs. Furthermore, universal programs provide the greatest benefits or services to the middle class or the people with low incomes who are already best prepared to improve themselves. According to the targeters, America's poorest people, especially female-headed black families in inner cities, face dramatically different circumstances from the rest of us; therefore, only highly concentrated programs, devised specially for them, can succeed.

Rarely, however, do proponents of targeted, custom-tailored social services explain how they will obtain sustained majority support. They simply have not faced up to the hard political questions:

  • Why should people just above the poverty line, struggling without benefit of health coverage, child care, or adequate unemployment insurance, pay for programs that go exclusively to people below the poverty line?
  • Why might not many Americans from the working and middle classes simply write off troubled inner-city people, and just call for the police and prisons to contain their threatening behavior?

    Whether we like it or not, some voters clearly prefer to punish the underclass rather than to help it. Many of those who

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