Thursday, January 31, 2008

FOCUS On The Politics of Poverty


John Edwards' campaign for the Democratic Party nomination ends today, with the candidate not even making it to Super Tuesday.

There is no doubt that there are many reasons for the poor showings that led to his withdrawal. He had two formidable and well-financed opponents, of course, but it is a mistake to think that his basic message did not play a part as well.

"Poverty," according to Edwards, "is the cause of my life." The voters did not respond with similar enthusiasm, however, and the obvious question is, Why not?

The answer can't be as simple as the suggestion that it is the messenger and not the message that is the problem. Rival candidates unable to break out of single digit polling may not have been the ideal messengers for their individual marquee issues, but when their messages show signs of gaining electoral traction, the rest of the pack rushes in with their own five-point plan.

Not so with poverty relief, even as the state of the economy shifts to center stage and almost everybody has something to say about stimulus packages.

When Edwards last summer completed his eight state poverty tour, modeled on Robert F. Kennedy's similar tour across America 40 years earlier, why didn't the issue strike a chord with a larger share of the electorate?

Certainly, the shame of poverty amidst plenty is no less significant now than then. There are, in Edwards' fine phrase, "two Americas," and the gap between the richest Americans and the poorest has been increasing fairly steadily since the 1970s and throughout the largest period of economic expansion of the 20th century.

Many predicted that the federal response to Hurricane Katrina's devastation of New Orleans' 9th Ward would retain considerable political potency among voters. CNN reporters were quite confident in their early pronouncements that a renewed national conversation on race and poverty was certain to follow.

But it did not happen. The stubborn fact remains that New Orleans is yesterday's news, and poverty in America is not a winning ticket in the presidential lottery.

Perhaps the explanation lies with the familiar observation that the poor don't vote in numbers comparable to better-off economic demographics.

While we know that pocketbook issues often crowd out other important concerns, even those of war and peace, the issue of poverty has resonated more broadly in the past among voters who have shown a capacity to be moved by considerations other than their own economic self-interest.

Even in purely self-interested terms, there are reasons for thinking that the plight of the poor should hit closer to home for more Americans, many of whom, as polls show, feel increased anxiety over their own economic uncertainty. Unlike in Robert Kennedy's era, poverty is now a phenomenon affecting working people at almost twice the rate of the 1960s.

Nonetheless, many people who feel economic insecurity don't see themselves as potentially part of the poor, a demographic many tend to see as a distinct, permanent economic class. The poor are different, many may think, and popular explanations of the fundamental causes of poverty reinforce that idea.

Americans are divided over the way they understand poverty and its causes. There are two Americas here as well.

About half consider the principal cause of poverty to be associated with various personal behaviors and habits, which are more or less up to the individual to do something about.

The other half point to various social structural impediments - e.g., low wages, lack of health insurance, lack of educational and other conditions favorable to social mobility - that lock people into fates that are largely beyond their control.

The post-Reagan Democratic consensus largely abandoned poverty as a major issue in favor of the concerns of the middle class, and, with it, they abandoned their historic emphasis on social structural forces that government can address. To the extent that poverty is seen largely as a sign of a personal failing, then the case for governmental action withers.

The rhetoric of the 1992 Clinton campaign reveals just how consequential the Democratic Party's shift in political emphasis and rhetoric was to become. They discovered the voting bloc made up of those "who work hard and play by the rules."

The new "third way" Democrats struggled to win back the so-called Reagan Democrats. These Reagan defectors had complained that the interests of the poor had displaced concern for middle-income voters, but the very language chosen to frame the party's renewed commitments to the middle class had profound and lasting implications for the anti-poverty movement.

In effect, the change in language represented a wholesale capitulation to the Reaganites' favored explanation of poverty as primarily a consequence of morally culpable personal failings and a lack of personal responsibility among the poor.

When Clinton emphasized the need to "end welfare as we know it," his clever slogan was meant to signal a greater moral and intellectual affinity to the personal responsibility explanation championed by the right, and, most importantly, the shift in rhetoric was unaccompanied by any real program for ending poverty as we know it.

The response to the fate of the Clinton health insurance plan is another example of how much the rhetorical landscape changed. When the political backlash to Clinton's plan for universal access to health insurance emerged, it came from the insured who feared loss of benefits such as choice of physician.

The health care debate from that point forward was transformed. For most of the decade, the cause of universal health care gave way to the patients' rights movement aimed at preserving what the reasonably well-off segments of society already had.

The legacy of the Democrats' strategic political shift away from poverty as a focal concern shapes the options the Democrats have for going forward.

To the extent that Democrats once again want to mount a serious anti-poverty agenda, they have to do battle hobbled by the intellectually truncated rhetoric bequeathed to them. Once again, the case must be made for the comparable importance of social structural explanations of poverty.

As long as so many Americans are in the grip of the pernicious idea - validated by Democrats themselves - that it's largely the fault of the poor that they are poor, then no new consensus on the need to fight poverty can emerge.

Edwards seems to think that recitation of the stark facts of economic inequality or reminding voters of the harsh burdens faced by the poor are enough to effect change.

However, sufficient numbers of voters can be moved to embrace political action against poverty only when they first move beyond the seriously deficient causal story that both parties have embraced for the last 15 years.

A battle of ideas that was suspended for a time must be re-engaged if poverty as a viable political issue can be revived.

[© 2008 Madison Powers/CQ Politics.com]

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