David Callahan

David Callahan is a senior fellow at Demos and editor of PolicyShop, the Demos blog.

Recent Articles

The Real Liberal Elite

Now that more liberals are as rich as Republicans, do we risk forgetting the poor and working families?

George Soros. (Flickr/Journalism and Media Studies Centre)
The wealthy have long occupied an awkward place in liberal politics. Since the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a movement that purports to speak for the common person has occasionally relied on fabulously rich candidates and backers. Yet something new has happened in recent years: The wealthy have become more than episodic allies of the left; they are now central players in progressivism. Back in 1990, rich liberals were still something of a novelty. A small and predictable cast of donors gave money to progressive causes and candidates, and they included people like Stewart Mott, an heir to the General Motors fortune; Max Palevsky, who made his money in computers; and the television producer Norman Lear. These donors were outliers. The Forbes 400 was dominated by industries that leaned solidly right, and affluent voters were still largely Republican. California's prosperity in the 1970s famously helped fuel the rise of the new right and Ronald Reagan's career. In 1988, George H...

Saying Yes in Syracuse

A battered industrial city is leading the way in preparing all schoolchildren to succeed in college.

(iStock)
The debate over what it takes to get low-income kids ready for college, and then to actually earn a degree, has long been polarized. Some argue that better schools alone can ensure that such students are ready to enter and finish college. Others see this view as naive, pointing to the many socioeconomic obstacles facing low-income kids along with the high costs of college. Who's right in this debate? Both sides. Or at least that is the premise of one of the most ambitious experiments now under way in urban education. This September, in the battered upstate New York city of Syracuse -- the very picture of postindustrial decline -- every student, from kindergarten through 12th grade, was made a tantalizing promise: Complete high school with decent grades, and you'll be guaranteed a college scholarship. The promise comes from an unusual partnership that includes Syracuse University, the city of Syracuse, and -- the instigator of the whole enterprise -- Say Yes to Education, a nonprofit...

False Choices on Poverty

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...

Rocky Mountain Low

During his 12 years as a U.S. Congressman from Colorado, David Skaggs did his best to listen to all his constituents. He held open office hours during which anyone could just walk in. He hosted town meetings around his district, which covered the northwest suburbs of Denver. He set up at supermarkets, talking to whoever stopped by. What Skaggs discovered early on, however, was that not everyone sought to be heard. Middle-class and affluent people made contact all the time. They were most likely to write letters, ask for a meeting, join a local environmental group, volunteer on his campaigns, and, of course, write checks at re-election time. From those at the bottom of the economic ladder, though, the congressman heard very little. "Most of them were too busy surviving to be very active," Skaggs says. "There is a correlation between wealth and discretionary time and a desire to influence public policy." Indeed, there is. Rarely has that correlation been more deeply entrenched in...

Still With Us

One of the greatest successes of American social policy over the last few decades has been a dramatic reduction in poverty among the elderly. Even so, some 3.3 million seniors still live below the poverty line. Several million more scrape by just above the poverty line. For many of these people, poverty is the reward for adult lives spent continuously in the workforce or raising children and managing a family. Good housing and proper medical care are often out of reach for the poor elderly—or so expensive that little money is left over for other needs. Hundreds of thousands of elders go hungry every month. In the current debate over Social Security reform, the plight of America's poor elders has so far received little attention. With the elderly poverty rate below that of the general population, many policymakers do not see it as a major national concern. The Clinton administration has only recently directed attention to the subject, and few of the many Social Security reform bills...

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