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"Comments on CAP Report:,"

by David K. Shipler July/August 2007 issue of Poverty & Race

This thoughtful report vividly illustrates the American contradiction: a society with the skills, but not the will, to alleviate poverty. Most of the problems addressed in this blueprint are susceptible to the enhancement of existing government programs and the addition of a few new, creative ideas. But the hardships afflicting poor families run across a broad spectrum. At one end are those easiest to overcome with more money, in the areas of housing, schooling, health, wages, child care, asset building and the like. This is the part of the spectrum where the country has failed, as liberals rightly observe, in its public education, government services and private economy.

At the other end, more distant from ready solutions, stand the issues central to conservatives’ arguments: the personal and family failures that become critical to a person’s capacity in the competitive labor market. How to combat the bad parenting, teenage pregnancy, low graduation rates, inadequate skills, drug use, alienation, poor work ethics and other internal obstacles to success? Just as liberals are right to point to societal institutions, so conservatives are correct to aim at individual and family dysfunction. Both are part of the ecology of poverty.

It is easy for many conservatives to use individual disabilities to blame the victims and wash their hands of the issue. And many liberals find it convenient to blame societal institutions for creating the individual handicaps. At the extremes, these two ideologies freeze discussion. What we need is a multi-ideological approach that recognizes both ends of the spectrum and acknowledges the full sweep of the difficulties that burden families in destitution.

The recommendations here are dramatic, sensible and expensive investments with the likelihood of a handsome return. But they are only a step. They do not recognize fully that when a poor person in America presents her problem to an agency, she comes inside an invisible web of other problems that cannot be addressed unless we create gateways through which people can pass into multiple services. Imagine if a teacher with a hungry student could do more than toss the kid a Granola bar (as some have told me they do), but also had resources in school to check the family’s eligibility for food stamps and refer them to a food bank or even to a malnutrition clinic if the child is underweight or developmentally delayed. Imagine if probation officers, pediatricians, job trainers, housing specialists and caseworkers of various kinds had the tools to address the issues backstage that jeopardize the performances of their clients. Solving poverty is a matter of connecting the dots, recognizing interactions among those in both the liberals’ and the conservatives’ favorite arenas, and then changing the ecological system.

David K. Shipler , a former NY Times reporter, is the author of The Working Poor: Invisible in America (Knopf, 2004) and A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America (Knopf, 1997).

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