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Poverty and Power

A new war on poverty is heating up in American cities. James Jennings introduces the guiding idea -- community empowerment -- and Shepard Barbash, Charlotte Kahn, and Ernesto Cortés report on what's happening in Atlanta, Boston, and San Antonio.

James Jennings

FOR MORE THAN 20 years, urban poverty in this country has been getting worse. And as the spring 1992 rebellions in Los Angeles and several
other cities underscored, social welfare policies have failed to arrest this deterioration. They have neither strengthened the social infrastructure of neighborhoods, nor ensured opportunities for socio-economic mobility for vast and growing numbers of poor Americans, especially blacks and Latinos. Faced with these failures of politics and policy, people in a number of American
cities are pursuing new strategies for fighting urban poverty. Where conventional policies treat poor people as clients who need services; the new strategies are based on ideas of community-building and empowerment; they encourage mobilization by poor people themselves around their own self-defined interests. A few foundations are providing scattered support for such projects. But neither the media nor policy-makers have been paying much attention. The articles by Charlotte Kahn on Boston, Shepard Barbash on Atlanta, and Ernesto Cortés on the Industrial Areas Foundation and San Antonio in this issue of the Boston Review aim to correct this neglect. In his classic work, The Affluent Society (1958), John Kenneth Galbraith urged Americans not to treat poverty as an "afterthought." Galbraith was writing at a time of growing affluence, but his point retains all of its original force. Millions of Americans are "officially" poor, and millions more are officially "near poverty." Since 1965, the US Census Bureau has used a mechanical formula to define the official poverty line. According to this formula -- which set the 1992 poverty threshold for a family of four at $13,547 -- the US poverty population now includes 17.7 million whites, 10.2 million blacks, and 6.3 million Latinos. The numbers have been growing for 20 years. In 1965, approximately 33.2 million persons lived in households below the official poverty level, representing 17% of the US population. By 1973, both the absolute number of persons living in poverty (23 million), and the rate of poverty (eleven percent) had declined significantly. By 1988, however, the number of persons in poverty was back up to 31.9 million, 13.1% of the population. In 1990, 31.9% of all blacks lived below the official poverty level, compared to 28.1% of Latinos, and 8.8% of the white population. The racial gap in poverty rates has also persisted. The ratio of the black poverty
rate to the white rate has changed little over the past half century, despite changes in family structure, attitudes towards work, and levels of schooling -- the factors that many analysts take as the principal causes of poverty. In 1939, the poverty rate for black families was at least three times the rate for white families. In 1970, and still in 1988, the black poverty rate was three times the white poverty rate! This racial gap is evident among children, the elderly, and even among female-headed families.

The pervasiveness, persistence, and growth of urban poverty suggest that poverty is neither an economic aberration nor a reflection of the morals, or lack thereof, of 34 million poor adults and children -- or the millions more who are near poor. Rather, the problem of poverty reflects the declining number of jobs paying decent living wages, an increasingly inequitable distribution of wealth, continuing racial divisions, and the absence of poor people themselves from the analysis or political resolution of the problem of poverty. The exclusion of poor people from official policy discussion -- their political demobilization -- may be an important factor in the failure of conventional policies to arrest persistent poverty. This depoliticization encourages a conception of the poor as targets for services and treatment, not as equal citizens, as civic partners in setting or acting on the public agenda. It has permitted public discourse to turn away from structural causes and to focus on the vague symbolism of "dependency," "irresponsibility," and "welfare reform." Politicians from both parties gain political advantage by encouraging, perhaps even manipulating, this unfounded symbolism while at the same time pushing similar policy responses to persistent poverty. The Family Support Act of 1988 -- highly touted, but now about to be discarded -- won broad bipartisan support from Presidents Reagan and Bush, a Democratic congress, and many Democratic governors, including then-Governor Bill Clinton. It was hailed as the legislation that would finally bring the "welfare mess" under control. But it has been ineffective not only because of inadequate funding, but also because it reflects an ahistorical view of poverty and a conventional idea of poor people as mere recipients of state benefits.

The relatively quick failure of this legislation has heralded the current call by both parties to "end welfare as we know it." In many states, this means the adoption of punitive and Draconian measures aimed at forcing poor people into low-wage jobs, cutting food stamps, limiting the number of years that a person may receive AFDC benefits, punishing poor and single women who decide to give birth to more than one child, fingerprinting AFDC recipients, and developing costly bureaucracies to follow, and monitor, the activities of poor people, especially in black and Latino communities. Although they are invisible in current public discourse -- or appear only as recipients -- poor people have a long tradition of mobilizing against poverty. The Civil Rights Movement itself is a premier example of a political response to poverty by the poor. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed that after successfully completing the legislative battle against segregation, the Civil Rights Movement needed to develop a massive civil disobedience campaign -- a national mobilization of poor people -- to end poverty in the United States. As he explained in his 1967 article, "Martin Luther King Defines Black Power," political decisions on behalf of those with power and wealth produce poverty; it would, therefore, take counter-power to reduce or eliminate poverty. The National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), founded in 1966, provides another example of how poor people attempted to use political mobilization to reduce poverty. NWRO sought to organize poor women around four principles: adequate income, dignity, justice, and democracy for all poor people. Although it was defunct by 1975, the NWRO had a significant impact on increasing and liberalizing welfare benefits for women and children, and gave rise to chapters of the grassroots organization ACORN in many American cities.

The political mobilizations of the 1960s contributed to a significant reduction in poverty over the decade. In 1960, for example, 65.5% of all black children (under 18 years of age) lived in poverty; by 1970 this figure declined to 41.5%. This figure has since increased again, in part because of the decline of a national movement
for social and economic change, led by, and on behalf of, poor people. The resurgence in the rate of child poverty -- particularly among black children -- is more a reflection of the depoliticization of poor people, than of the pathologies attributed to them in standard academic and political discussion. Excluded from public discussion, poor people are seeking once more to organize politically in response to the problem of poverty. Community building is one such response. The other contributors in this issue describe a range of community-building strategies aimed at strengthening the social and institutional fabric of poor communities, and involving residents in such efforts. A second line of response is advocacy and mobilization of the kind pursued by the NWRO. More recently, the Coalition for Basic Human Needs and the Human Services Coalition in Massachusetts have pursued lobbying strategies and annually published a "Poor People's Budget" showing how a more equitable distribution of state dollars could reduce the level of poverty. In Detroit, an organization of welfare recipients and the homeless have mobilized the poor community under a campaign, "Up and Out of Poverty Now," which targets demonstrations against unsupportive elected officials. In Minneapolis, the Welfare Rights Committee has organized a campaign to resist such welfare reform initiatives as the Clinton administration's two year limit and workfare proposals.

Another organization controlled by poor people and dedicated to eradicating poverty through political action is the Milwaukee-based Congress for a Working America (CFWA). As one observer put it, "the group is . . . strongly committed to involving welfare recipients and the working poor in changing public policy." CFWA's campaign to eliminate poverty has achieved some important successes. In 1989, CFWA won a major legislative battle when the Wisconsin legislature adopted a statewide earned-income tax credit which supplements the federal earned-income tax credit. Only a handful of states have earned-income tax credits and, due to CFWA's efforts, Wisconsin is the only one that ties the tax credit to family size.

Successes -- whether of community-building or of advocacy and mobilization -- are routinely challenged and may not survive the onslaught of interests seeking
to protect wealth and power. But they remain important models that could be strengthened through greater political and community mobilization. And only such mobilization -- organized, led, and sustained by poor people -- can guarantee anti-poverty policies that reflect poor people's interests and well-being and put an end to poverty "as we know it."

Click here to return to the Boston Review Series, The New War on Poverty.

Originally published in the June/September 1994 issue of Boston Review

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