Monday, September 24, 2007

"Progressives" Beguiled by Poverty

In a post last week on the Drum Major Institute site, Maureen Lane took Heather McDonald of the Manhattan Institute to task for setting up a false dichotomy between poor people and"the rest of us." Here's how she set this up:

"Heather's premise is that people are not doing things like, taking kids to school on time, going to PTA, going to doctor's appointments, because they have bad behavior and they just need to "do the right thing" like the rest of "us" (by which she must mean the presumably middle class viewers). Setting poor people outside society by drawing a "them versus us" dichotomy is a tried and true way for ideologues to frame arguments for not working directly on economic and public policy solutions to poverty."

Let's take a critical look at Lane's assumptions here. What she's saying is that by placing a major responsibility on people to behave in certain ways-ways that have been demonstrated to be successful in achieving certain socially desirable results-we are excusing our unwillingness to work directly "on economic and public policy solutions to poverty." This is demonstrably a false statement. Heather's supposedly invidious dichotomy is designed to underscore the fact that the most successful public policies for addressing poverty confront the issue of the relationship between values and behavior.

What is clear is that when some poor people adopt the values in question here-you know those "bourgeois values" that our progressive friends are always happy to deconstruct because of their putative role in under girding the power dynamic that they detest-they can be successful in raising themselves up into a more comfortable middle class status. This has been demonstrated historically by wave after wave of immigrants who have come into the United States hoping to achieve a better life.

Somewhere in the middle of the "Great Society" euphoria, however, we lost our way-so intent were we not to make anything the responsibility of individuals when we had a racist society conveniently at hand to blame. As a result, large welfare bureaucracies were established that created a self-perpetuating dependent population; which was great for the "New Class" of social workers and welfare policy makers, but ultimately horrid for those mired in dependency.

All of which is apparently over Maureen Lane's head as she tells here readers: "Generally speaking, poor families are coming from poor communities where poor women and poor men are sidelined from family sustaining jobs." Just how are they sidelined? Doesn't this come back to exactly what McDonald is trying to say? Which gets back to why McDonald said that the one good thing about Bloomberg's "charity" plan for the poor was that it recognized that behavior needed to be changed.

The question here, with welfare rolls declining since the reform measures of ten years ago, is how to reach the intransigent remains of the dependency class. Clearly, for Lane and the DMI bunch, capitalism isn't the answer. She cites, approvingly, the "renowned" Hunter professor, Mimi Abromovitz: "......Meanwhile, the American Dream the promise that work pays faded for the working and middle class. In 2004, 7.8 million people aged 16 or older spent at least 27 weeks either working or looking for a job but earned below poverty-level wages in companies that provided few basic benefits such as healthcare or parental leave. More than 58% of these working poor women and men were on the job full-time and 90% worked at some time during the year."

Conservatives such as Heather McDonald, however, simply don't get it: "Heather MacDonald and other conservative thinkers are also flummoxed in their own way. Their ideas are infused with the dust and grime of worn-out stereotypes. Their solutions reflect the stuffy answers that do not lend themselves to innovation and advancement." Indeed they must not, since the kind of innovations that are likely to come out of the DMI are the same kinds that led to all of the welfare dependency in the first place.

Perhaps, then, we should look to our socialist friends in Europe, whose economies are collapsing under the weight of all of the "innovative" government-driven solutions that have empowered public bureaucracies at the expense of a robust private sector. It is, moreover, to the "fading American Dream" that all of the immigrants-legal as well as illegal-still come in search of; in spite of what any "renown" professor (an oxymoron for sure) might opine.

Beware of progressive innovation, it is free market hostile and government bureaucrat friendly, a combination that has proved to be historically deadly after a brief period of necessary checks and balances on private sector excess. And Lane, et al, should look at what's happening all over the world, where poverty is being addressed by private sector growth. It may be messy and it certainly isn't perfect, but it reminds us, by way of analogy, of the axiom about our political system: "Democracy is the worst political system, except for all of the others."