Suppose you were going to decide your vote for president entirely on the issue of who could best reduce poverty. Who would you vote for?You’d start by focusing your attention on the candidates who have invested the most time in the issue, John Edwards and Barack Obama.
You’d find that both have a multilayered view of poverty. We used to have debates in which liberals emphasized the lack of jobs and conservatives emphasized personal behavior. But in the post-welfare-reform world, it’s pretty obvious that everything feeds into everything else. For Edwards and Obama, poverty flows from a lack of jobs and broken families, bad schools and bad role models, no training and no self-control.
For both candidates, you have to attack everything at once. You have to holistically change the environment that structures behavior. The question is how to do it.
Obama and Edwards agree on a lot, but in this matter they emphasize different things. As Alec MacGillis of The Washington Post observed, Edwards emphasizes programs that help people escape from concentrated poverty. Obama emphasizes programs that fix inner-city neighborhoods. One helps people find better environments, the other seeks to strengthen the environment they are already in.
Edwards would create a million housing vouchers for working families. These would, he argues, “enable people to vote with their feet to demand safe communities with good schools.” They’d help people move to where the jobs are and foster economic integration.
The problem with his approach is that past efforts at dispersal produced disappointing results. Families who were given the means to move from poor neighborhoods to middle-class areas did not see incomes rise. Girls in those families did a little better, but boys did worse. They quickly formed subcultures in the new communities that replicated patterns of the old ones. Male criminality rose, but test scores did not.
Obama, by contrast, builds his approach around the Harlem Children’s Zone, what he calls “an all-encompassing, all-hands-on-deck anti-poverty effort.” The zone takes an area in Harlem and saturates it with childcare, marriage counseling, charter schools and job counselors and everything else you can think of. Obama says he’ll start by replicating the program in 20 cities around the country.
The problem here is that there are few historical examples of neighborhoods being lifted up at once. There are 4,000 community development corporations around the country and they have not lifted residents out of poverty. The positive influences in the center get overwhelmed by the negative peer influences all around.
The organizations that do appear to work, like the Harlem Children’s Zone (there’s no firm data yet), tend to have charismatic leaders like Geoffrey Canada who are willing to fight teachers’ unions and take on bureaucracies. It’s not clear whether their success is replicable, let alone by the federal government.
What we have, then, is two divergent approaches, both of which have problems and low odds of producing tremendous success. If you find that discouraging, welcome to the world of poverty policy.
If I had to choose between the two, I guess I’d go with the Obama plan. I’d lean that way because Obama seems to have a more developed view of social capital. Edwards offers vouchers, job training and vows to create a million temporary public-sector jobs. Obama agrees, but takes fuller advantage of home visits, parental counseling, mentoring programs and other relationship-building efforts.
The Obama policy provides more face-to-face contact with people who can offer praise or disapproval. Rising out of poverty is difficult — even when there are jobs and good schools. It’s hard to focus on a distant degree or home purchase. But human beings have a strong desire for approval and can accomplish a lot with daily doses of praise and censure. Standards of behavior are contagious that way.
A neighborhood is a moral ecosystem, and Obama, the former community organizer, seems to have a better feel for that. It’s not only policies we’re looking for in selecting a leader, it’s a sense of how the world works. Obama’s plan isn’t a sure-fire cure for poverty, but it does reveal an awareness of the supple forces that can’t be measured and seen.
Last week I cited data on rising earnings among the working poor. I should have made it clear that the data referred to poor households with children, since poor households without children did not enjoy those gains.