It has long been said that in the 1960s we declared war on poverty, and poverty won.
Doug Besharov of the University of Maryland and AEI says: bull****. Poverty lost, big-time. That is, the proportion of the population living in severe material deprivation has declined sharply by almost any measure, but the official “poverty rate” calculation misses most of that progress. That leaves behind, of course, the problem of concentrated poverty and social dislocation in a few dozen neighborhoods around the country, and the growing problem of income insecurity among those not persistently poor.
(It’s an open question how much of the truly awful urban poverty of the 1960s is still with us; Besharov is much less concerned than I am with the separate issue of growing inequality of income and wealth among those who don’t have to worry where their next meal and their next month’s rent are coming from.)
In Besharov’s view, conflating the concentrated-deprivation problem and the income-insecurity problem into a single “poverty problem” is a mistake, and leads to misdirected policies. Today, in advance of the annual Census Bureau release of its estimate of the poverty rate and on the anniversary of the Katrina disaster, he joined with Nick Eberstadt of AEI and former Philadelphia mayor the Rev. Wilson Goode to review the facts and look to the future for an audience of journalists (plus me). The result will probably show up on C-SPAN at some point, and I’ll link to that when it’s available. In the meantime, here are Eberstadt’s slides.
I found the basic Besharov/Eberstadt thesis convincing, though my view isn’t really an expert one. But I was struck during the discussion by the extent to which basic facts — for example, of those in persistent material deprivation, how many are rural rather than urban? — simply weren’t available.
According to Eberstadt, the capacity of the Federal government to know what’s going on in domestic policy is being systematically dismantled as one data-collection effort after another is zero-funded. (In my own business, this happend to the DUF/ADAM arrestee drug-use measurement program; Eberstandt’s example is the Survey of Income and Program Participation, which was the only national study that provided evidence on income dynamics over time, thus allowing us to distinguish between the persistently poor and the transiently poor.)
This is driven at least in part by conservative ideology: the right seems to think that the less we know about problems the less we’ll be tempted to try to do something about them. If memory serves, sometime in the 1970s the Republican-Dixiecrat alliance actually passed an appropriations rider forbidding the development of “social indicators” to parallel the widely-published economic indicator series. That left us with unsatisfactory single numbers such as the poverty rate.
Eberstadt, in a conversation after the meeting, drew a parallel with the old conservative strategy of “starving the beast” by cutting taxes to make new social programs fiscally impossible. He summed up the apparent strategy of the Bush Administration as “feed the beast, but blind it.”