The Face of the Poor Is Ours

Jan. 8 this year marked the 40th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of unconditional war on poverty in America, just weeks after taking office in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Johnson’s successor, Ronald Reagan, asserted in 1988, however, that Poverty won.

The real story might be that although the War on Poverty nearly halved the poverty rate, from 19 percent to 11 percent between 1964 and 1973, its socioeconomic enemy remained as elusive as Johnson’s foreign policy adversary, the Vietcong, largely because it was not well understood. While programs responded to chronic unemployment from the supply side with job training, for example, wages stagnated to the point that today’s average worker earns 22 percent less in terms of purchasing power than a peer in 1973.

Despite alerts raised by works ranging from Michael Harrington’s seminal The Other America to Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, American policy makers and the public continue to act as if poverty is the largely permanent socioeconomic status of a minority of citizens who have no one and nothing to blame but themselves and their quasi-addiction to public subsidies.

Now comes the academic Mark Robert Rank in One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All, to deliver a substantially different message. A majority of the American population will encounter poverty and the welfare system at some point in their lifetimes, he writes, predicting that by age 75, three-fourths of the population will experience poverty or near-poverty.

As Pogo might have put it, we have looked at the face of poverty and it is our own.

Rank stands out amid the rising chorus of authors who are decrying wage stagnation and widening income gap in that he tackles the very concept of poverty and its dimensions to demonstrate how and why its pervasiveness makes it a moral and political problem that affects everyone. Anyone following the research discussion of the past decade knows that in the United States poverty is usually neither permanent nor attached to a fixed tenth of the population, that poverty can be associated with a combination of factors, and that welfare dependency is a misnomer.

One of the reasons citizens and politicians think otherwise, Rank explains, is the fixation on the federal poverty guidelines in a way that their creator, the economist Molly Orshansky, never intended. For 2004, for example, the federal government describes as poor an individual with no dependents who attempts to eat, obtain shelter and clothing and generally survive on earnings at or below $4.48 an hour, or $9,310 a year. Most Americans think themselves poor at twice those earnings, which coincidentally is the level below which a family of four becomes statistically poor.

Another conceptual problem is that social policy assumes that poverty is a malfunction of the U.S. socioeconomic system. Rank follows in the footsteps of Harrington in arguing that the American economy is a rigged game of musical jobs in whichaside from an exceptional mass mobilization during a period of global warthere has never been enough work at adequate pay for everyone. The scarcity greases competition among workers and keeps wages low.

Rank, a professor of social welfare at Washington University’s School of Social Work in St. Louis, could have rested his case here. If enough people realized that very deep deprivation is likely, and even the norm, for most of us at one time or another in our lives, our collective thinking would change. Poverty would no longer be the Calvinist sin the Puritans bequeathed us, but an ill that threatens us all.

He has gone one step further. In serving up what he describes as a new paradigm and a set of policy recipes, Rank has adroitly laid out much of the emerging consensus among those who study wages, job creation, economic mobility and the supports that make it possible, such as housing and health care. As a notable bonus, he attempts a reasonable answer to the perennial question of the citizen reader: What can I do?

Lamentably, in two chapters that should have been excised, Rank succumbs to an academic fad brought on by President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative. This new fashion was embarrassingly on display in last year’s disappointing series of public dialogues between the otherwise keen social policy scholars Mary Jo Bane, a Catholic, and Lawrence Mead, a Protestant, upon publication of their thin joint work on religion and welfare reform. Like Bane and Mead, Rank’s offending chapters prove the reverse of the truism among economists: that clerics don’t understand the real world. The socioeconomic wonkerati have extremely little to offer the marketplace of ideas about religion beyond what they learned in Sunday school. They shouldn’t try.

Nothing in Rank’s chapter on the biblical sources for the idea of economic justice will surprise anyone who has attended a parish basement discussion on the Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter on the economy. Similarly, in tapping the well of philosophy from the ancient Greeks to Alexis de Tocqueville, Rank fails to deliver fresh water. The educated reader might be advised to skip these two middle chapters.

Still, because One Nation, Underprivileged makes such an important contribution to the thinking about poverty, its blemishes should be regarded as beauty marks.

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