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The term ‘poverty’ connotes low income, but poverty as a political issue centers on behavior more than economics. It concerns people who are not only low-income but fail to function socially in expected ways. That is, they drop out of school, offend the law, or subsist on welfare without employment, even though employable. What above all places this behavior outside traditional theory is that it is dysfunctional. That is, it harms the interest of the individuals involved as well as that of the society.
Most of the controversy about poverty is about who is responsible for this lifestyle. The federal government defines the poor as people falling below a certain minimum of income. Let’s examine the American scenario.
Fifteen percent of the American public was poor by this standard in 1993 (U.S. Dept of Commerce, 1993). However, most people who enter poverty leave it quickly and are not distinct from the better-off population. The controversial poor are those who remain poor long-term, and especially those who are able-bodied and working-aged.
Perhaps 4 to 5 percent of Americans remain poor for more than two years at once but are not elderly or disabled. This is the group–largely made up of welfare mothers and single, nonworking men–on whom controversy centers. While children comprise 40 percent of the poor, the dispute is much more about their parents. Why don’t the adult poor do more to provide for themselves and their families, and who is responsible for this, them or the society? Politically, the most salient fact about poor adults is that they seldom work.
In 1959, 68 percent of the heads of poor families worked at some time in the year, and 31 percent worked full year and full-time. By 1975, those levels had declined to only 50 and 16 percent, respectively, and have changed little since. In 1993, only 41 percent of poor adults worked at all, only 10 percent full year and full-time, compared to figures of 69 and 42 percent for the general population (U.S. Bureau of Statistics). It is lack of employment more than low income as such that seems to cause many of the other problems of the poor, such as marital instability. Since work levels among non poor adults run much higher, there is pressure to require welfare recipients to work. But dispute rages over why the poor so seldom work and what can be done about it. If poverty were caused by some clear and remediable feature of society, it would not be a distinct sort of issue. If, for example, it were caused by government spending too much or too little on social programs, then it would not be distinct from other issues of a left-right character that center on the proper role of government.
The government might solve the problem simply by transferring more resources to the needy, or by denying them aid. Whether to do this could be debated in terms of competing principles of justice of the sort already discussed by political theorists. Unfortunately, the causes and cures of poverty are far from clear. Conservatives contend that government has created poverty by giving support to the dysfunctional, liberals that it has done too little to help the deprived or to abate such barriers to working as racial prejudice or lack of jobs or child care.8 Both sides think that welfare creates incentives against work and marriage by supporting mainly the nonworking, unmarried poor. But there is little evidence for any of these theories. Government policies and social or economic barriers appear to explain at best only part of the poverty problem. Equally, solutions are unclear. While government could simply eradicate income poverty with transfers, this would not solve the dysfunctional behavioral patterns that are more controversial. Since the Great Society of the 1960s, thirty years of ‘compensatory’ education and training programs have failed to show much impact on the wages or work levels of poor adults. Reductions in welfare’s disincentives to work have not raised work levels.
Efforts to ‘make work pay’ such as raising the minimum wage or subsidizing wages also do not raise work levels; the benefits also fail to reach most poor adults, just because they work so little. Political culture Political culture refers to the values and political conduct of individual or collective agents. As a concept it is as old as the analysis of politics itself. Aristotle wrote about a “state of mind” that could inspire either political change or stability; Machiavelli stressed the role of the values and feelings of identity and commitment; Burke praised the “cake of custom” that enabled political institutions to fulfll their aims; Tocqueville emphasized moeurs as the key determinants of the character of a particular society. But the contemporary understanding of political culture has been uniquely influenced by Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba’s classic behaviorist formulation in Te Civic Culture (1963), leading up to today’s multicausal, relational, and mixed methods approaches to the study of the concept (Tompson, Ellis, & Wildavsky, 1990).
As a result of this methodological diversity, political culture has ceased to be narrowly identified with the attitudes toward government of political agents, to be measured in the aggregate and then compared across political systems, or even more broadly conceived as a process in which political meaning is constructed in the interplay between the attitudes of individual citizens and the language and symbolic systems in which they are embedded. Contemporary analysis of political culture is a broad church, taking in everything from data collection on political opinions, attitudes, and values conducted by means of structured interviews with representative samples of citizens (e.g., Inglehart, 1997), to interpretive approaches that use a range of qualitative methods to clarify how political identities are generated, or how symbols and rhetoric can generate compliance or conflict, to discussions of why some ethnic identities become radicalized and others do not. The field has become so broad, that it is hard to pinpoint what is political culture and what is not Political culture of poverty Poverty generates different politics from low income or inequality. The political disputes raised by poverty are different from the type political theorists usually assume.
Again, poverty is not a standard left-right issue about the proper scope of government, such as whether to enforce affirmative action or enact national health insurance. These ‘New Deal’ issues, what I call progressive politics, form the staples of partisan politics. They are very important, as they shape the basic institutions and values of the society. They establish what, if any, protections citizens enjoy against the insecurities of private life. If government establishes a social safety net for those who fail to earn enough, or if it outlaws racial discrimination, it changes the meaning of justice for the community. Government imposes a certain morals on private persons or firms. There is no assumption that the interest of those regulated necessarily coincides with that of the society, although they share in the common interest defended by the rules. Poverty raises very different disputes, which I call dependency politics. The controversy is much less about fundamental institutions and values, much more about how to restore social order. Typically, the poor are not radicals who demand a more egalitarian society. Rather, they appear as offenders against values, such as law-abidingness or the work ethic that are not in question.
The dispute is how order can be rebuilt, whatever one believes about justice. Where progressive disputes are ideological, pitting contending visions of the society against one another, dependency disputes are moralistic, about who is to blame for bad behavior. The contestants initially dispute whether the poor have the opportunity to work or otherwise behave better than they do, but under these issues lurk deeper questions that regard my opponents’ view on a progressive issue as misguided or self-interested, but I do not doubt that they know their own interest and what serves it, and I would trust one of them to give me a ride home in the evening. Political values may be at issue, but not personal competence. This is the situation that political theorists routinely assume. Dependency politics, however, is much more personal. Crime and welfarism raise issues of personal coping much more than justice. The surface dispute is usually about whether social or governmental ‘barriers’ impede the poor getting ahead on their own. But beneath that, the real issues concern “deservingness.” One question is moral responsibility. Do the poor believe in the right values? Who is responsible for the disorders of the inner city? Liberals say the society, conservatives the poor themselves. Note that morals here can assume a harmony of interests between the individual and society that is lacking in progressive issues. Typically, if the poor did work or obey the law better than they do, it would serve their interests and values as well as those of the collectivity.
Moral responsibility in turn rests on judgments of personal competence. The innermost issue of dependency politics is whether the poor are able to cope with life without aid. Are they overwhelmed by the forces of an unjust society, as liberals say? Or are they miscreants who would behave better if society insisted, as conservatives say? The latter position, while more hostile to the poor, is actually more optimistic about their capabilities. To speak of the ‘welfare state,’ as theorists tend to do, muddies the difference between progressive and poverty issues in social policy. Some social programs are aimed at the middle class, some at the poor. The former actually predominate. In 1995, the Federal government spent $515 billion on Social Security, the massive pension and disability program, Medicare, which funds health care for the aged and disabled, and Unemployment Insurance for jobless workers. It spent only $93 million on means-tested aid to the needy, what is normally known as ‘welfare (Pole, 1970). It is the middle class programs that raise progressive issues, about how much social spending government can afford. Welfare and other antipoverty programs raise very different conflicts, focused far more on the lifestyle of the recipients than on the cost of supporting them. The debate about poverty often suggests that the contestants reason from barriers to identity.
That is, they decide whether jobs are available, and then they decide whether the poor are able to cope. I believe, rather, that the inference usually runs the other way. Read closely, debates about welfare or poverty suggest that the contestants have mental images of the poor as able or unable to cope, and from this they infer their views of the opportunity structure. Liberals see the needy as helpless victims of an unjust society, so they tend to say jobs or child care are lacking for people to work, whatever the hard evidence about these ‘barriers.’ Conservatives see the same people as confident maximizers taking advantage of a sentimental society, so they assert that opportunity is available. The reason the personality images seem to be prior is that they are typically unswayed by large swings in the objective opportunity situation. No matter how much is done to help poor adults, few liberal experts or politicians will agree to require them to work, because that violates an inner picture of these people as passive sufferers of social injustice. Conversely, conservatives go on saying that the idle can work if they choose, however little is done to help them. That is the tip-off that the real issue concerns identity rather than social fairness (Hobbes, 1946). Poverty has risen in political importance Poverty is not a new issue. It is a longstanding dilemma in America, and in other Western societies.
But poverty and the associated social problems are vastly more important to politics today than they were a generation or two ago. Traditionally, crime and welfare were local issues. They became critical national issues only in the 1960s. To the distress of the left, these questions have since operated to suppress structural issues about economic inequality. After the mid 1960s, it become difficult to argue for redistributive social policies, because rising crime and welfarism and falling work levels in the cities made the low-income people who would benefit appear ‘undeserving.’ The claim to be tough on crime and welfare is one of the appeals that Republicans used to win most presidential elections since 1968 and, after 1980, to expand their power in Congress. Some see poverty politics as no more than a conservative political tactic. Attacks on crime or welfare are a red herring used to distract attention from ongoing injustices due to class, race, or gender. If this were true, dependency politics would be only a facet of progressive conflict and have no autonomy.
There certainly remain unresolved issues of justice and equality for politicians to address, such as gay rights, the lack of guaranteed health care in America, and growing inequality in the distribution of wages and incomes. But poverty has clearly become an important dimension in politics in its own right, often crosscutting the usual liberal-conservative divide over the role of government. Crime, welfare, and other disorders linked to poverty frustrate reformism from the right as well as the left. The public may be unwilling to transfer more money to the poor, but it is also unwilling to abandon them The classic Western theorists address what political and economic rights the citizenry should have. Is political or economic inequality acceptable? Should governance be democratic? To what extent should government intervene in the market to alter outcomes? In the past, these were central issues in America and other Western countries. The question whether to extend formally equal rights to education and job opportunity to women and minorities also raised disputes of this kind.
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