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by Herbert J. Gans July/August 2007 issue of Poverty & Race

In these dark days when almost no one in Washington talks about poverty, “A National Strategy to Cut Poverty in Half” is a welcome and comprehensive anti-poverty program. It also contains an implicit four-part strategy which is worth analyzing briefly because it is both a typical and an apolitical strategy.

It treats non-poor Americans with data-generating shock, in order to impress them with the amount of poverty and inequality in the country and with guilt- tripping, in order to shame them for permitting these evils to exist. Then it advocates economic rationality, by proposing to spend $90 billion to save the country the $500 billion childhood poverty alone is said to cost, and it ends with consensual rhetoric, claiming a national “yearning for a shared national commitment to build opportunity for all.”

Many of us active in anti-poverty policy in the 1960s but outside politics used a similar strategy. Although it may have helped to prepare the substantive ground for the original War on Poverty, I do not think it accomplished its political goal, and I doubt it will work now.

Many non-poor people are unmoved by inequality—in fact, many like to be slightly ahead of the Joneses. They are ambivalent about poverty, sympathizing with but also stigmatizing the poor, especially non-working ones. While they want poverty ended, they oppose many specific anti-poverty policies, starting with welfare.
Consequently, policy must be complemented by an explicit political strategy, and let me suggest six parts of one that may be useful to activists and campaigning politicians.

1. Broaden the policy to cover the below-median-income population, the country’s “working people,” or target it mainly to the working poor but without excluding the politically less popular non-working ones.

2. Wherever possible, add to the budgets and broaden the eligibility for already existing and thus politically accepted policies—e.g., EITC, the Child Tax Credit, etc. as well as other income and job programs known to get resources to the poor. Suggest realistic and politically feasible ways of funding them.

3. Demonstrate the policy’s political virtues—e.g., how it might persuade its supporters and beneficiaries to vote and vote Democratic.

4. Participate in programs to increase voting among the poor, although they may wait until they have more reason to vote—i.e., the existence of an anti-poverty policy like this one.

5. Lobby for the policy with the Democratic frontrunners—unless the already-persuaded John Edwards is one. If funds and workers are limited, work instead in the Congressional elections. A new anti-poverty policy requires a majority of liberal and center-left Democrats in both Houses.

6. Publicize the novel and long-range programs in order to place them on the political agenda and to familiarize people who will someday vote on and implement them.

Herbert J. Gans is Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology Emeritus at Columbia University and a past president of the American Sociological Association. He is the author of over a dozen books, including War Against the Poor (Basic Books, 1995).

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