The Politics of Child Poverty

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.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.