Matthew Yglesias wants to know why child poverty–in which the United States far outpaces other OECD countries–does not “dominate the political agenda.” Three answers quickly come to mind:
1) Racial valence. Poverty in the United States is associated in the public mind with racial issues. Thus, the public is less sympathetic on the issue because they see it as a form of African-American special pleading. Most poor people are white, of course, but that does not change public perceptions, especially since African-American and other minorities have higher poverty rates than their populations.
2) Flawed progressive poverty politics. Many on the left (e.g. the Children’s Defense Fund, where I briefly worked) have focused on cash distribution as a way of eliminating poverty. This has been a terrible mistake in terms of American political culture. Americans hate giving people cash (or at least think that they hate giving people cash) unless the recipients have very clear cultural indicators that they are “deserving”–for example, the elderly. (Or unless they are wealthy farmers and ranchers–but that’s another story.). Put another way, Americans see “poverty” as connected with a complex of other factors that make the provision of cash a cure worse than the disease. And they are not necessarily completely wrong about that, although it can and has been grotesquely oversimplified.
3). Smarter new progressive poverty politics. Nowadays, progressives are not talking about poverty per se, but rather about other issues that connect with poverty but avoid discussions about cash disbursements unconnected to work: jobs programs, the Earned Income Tax Credit and health care being the three most important, with affordable housing being another key focus. The goal is to connect the interests of the very poor with the interests of the working poor and the middle class. And that seems to make sense to me.
Focusing on child poverty can work sometimes, but after a while, the public begins to see that it’s tricky to help poor children (whom they like) without also helping their parents (whom they don’t.). It’s better to adopt other strategies that form interclass alliances and link with popular social service ideas.
That seems to be Obama’s strategy, at any rate. I hope he’s right.