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Lawrence Mead
The New Politics of Poverty: The Non-Working Poor in America
Summer 1992

Lawrence M. Mead is an associate professor of politics at New York University and the author of The New Politics of Poverty: The Nonworking Poor in America (Basic Books). He discussed his book at a recent City Journal forum.

I want to concentrate on the political argument in my book, because this has received virtually no attention. The reviews have talked entirely about the policy argument, which is fairly simple. I’m talking about the long-term poor—those who are poor for years at a stretch, particularly the two central groups among the inner-city poor, namely welfare mothers and nonworking men. Most of the poverty among these groups is due simply to the fact that they are not employed. Only 41 percent of the poor had any earnings at all in 1989 compared with 69 percent for the general public—a striking disproportion. There are still working poor people, but they are vastly outnumbered by the nonworking.

This failure to work cannot be explained by any barrier outside the poor themselves. A number of barriers have been suggested: low wages, lack of jobs, difficulty in arranging child care, racial bias, low skills, disincentives to work attributable to welfare, and so on. A look at the research literature shows that there is little hard evidence for any of these theories. Each explains, at best, only a small part of the problem. In particular, the notion that jobs are lacking in the inner city—the mismatch theory” associated with William Julius Wilson—has not been verified by most researchers. Jobs are generally available, at least to those seeking them at any given time. Yet somehow those jobs are not taken.

My view is that the barriers remain important, but they primarily explain inequality among workers rather than the failure to work at all. Therefore they don’t explain most poverty and dependency. I’m driven to the conclusion that today’s poverty is predominantly cultural in origin. I don’t mean that poor people lack mainstream values; I think they want to work and obey the law, but they feel that somehow that is impossible in practice. They are dutiful, but defeated. Either they reject available jobs as beneath them, a view common among nonworking men, or they are overwhelmed by the logistics of employment—getting a job, arranging transportation, child care, and so on—a common reaction among welfare mothers. These attitudes are related to the social isolation of the inner city from mainstream society. Also, because of their ethnic histories, poor blacks and Hispanics are less likely to believe opportunities exist, even when it seems they do.

The history of social policy has verified this analysis. For close to thirty years, the country has been trying to solve poverty, through various voluntary methods, including training programs, work incentives for welfare mothers, and government jobs. Although some of these programs have worthwhile effects, none has shown a capacity to improve earnings very much because they do not improve work effort. Hence, they do not overcome poverty.

The failure of such programs has recently shifted policy toward what I call the new paternalism. The government has tacitly given up looking for external barriers to employment and has accepted the fact that we must focus on the behavior and lifestyle of the poor themselves. Increasingly, we are attempting to tell poor people how to live, to enforce the values that they already believe in, as well as help them. The Family Support Act of 1988, which requires states to institute workfare programs, is a notable example. We’re seeing the same thing in child support policy, homeless shelters, and schools that take a more active role in the lives of children. A number of public institutions are attempting to enforce values. It appears as if lack of work is due to a collapse of social authority, and we have to rebuild that authority primarily through public institutions.

What I’m mainly interested in is the implications of all this for American politics. America is used to tackling social problems through changing the scope of government, by having either more government as the left would prefer, or less government as the right would prefer. One either expands government to help the downtrodden or gets government out of the way so that the private sector can do the job. Today’s underclass problem, however, is not susceptible to that kind of solution. If, as it appears, joblessness among the long-term poor is not due to a lack of opportunity, then we cannot overcome it simply by doing more or by doing less. Neither the Great Society nor the Reagan era managed to overcome poverty in America, because they could not counter the trend toward less work effort and more detachment from the economy. Without greater effort by the poor themselves, neither more government nor less is going to accomplish very much.

This fact has forced the political debate away from opportunity and toward behavior and character. Underclass poverty violates what I call the “competence assumption,” the belief, deeply rooted in American culture, that ordinary people can be counted upon to take care of themselves, above all by working. In the past, poverty did not reflect a lack of competence. In the Thirties, The Grapes of Wrath described the Joad family traveling across the country looking for any kind of work, including stoop labor in the fields. The Joads were obviously competent; they merely lacked opportunity. But in our time many fewer poor seem to seek out work in this way.

Often, in fact, the so-called barriers actually reflect limitations of competence. Some people say, for example, that mothers don’t work because they can’t find child care. This is not a barrier comparable to the collapse of the economy in the Thirties; it is the sort of problem that millions of working women solve every day. Why are poor people unable to solve it? Inevitably the question shifts from society to the personality of the poor. Similarly, liberals sometimes argue that the reason poor people don’t work is that wages have fallen and it’s no longer worthwhile to work. But middle-class people also faced falling wages in the Seventies and Eighties, and they worked more. Again, the real issue comes down to how much competence we impute to the poor.

This new focus on competence has profoundly changed the political landscape of this country. It is too simple to say that social problems have driven politics to the right in the old sense. It’s true that the disorder of our cities is one of the major reasons why Republicans have held the White House for most of the last 25 years. But more importantly, the problems of the long-term poor have created a new kind of politics.

Before 1965, when the first major inner-city riots took place, politics was what I call progressive in character. The main dispute between left and right was about how to maximize opportunity for ordinary people. Liberal movements—labor, civil rights, feminism—represented citizens who claimed to be denied opportunities, but who were basically functional. The central issue in this politics was whether government should intervene to help the claimant groups, or whether we should trust the private marketplace. The question was how to satisfy the demands of working people for greater opportunity. Competence was not an issue; it was assumed by both left and right that the claimants were workers who were able to take care of their own self-interest, that they were in this sense deserving.

As the poverty of the underclass became the dominant question, what I call dependency politics took over. Today, the leading issue is how to restore order and confidence at the bottom of society. We have a politics of conduct rather then class; the issue is good behavior, not the good society. The claimants now are people who are much less active, usually not employed, not deserving, who cannot make the claims of workers, civil rights marchers, and feminists. I’m not saying that economic issues are dead, but they are no longer at the center of politics. The L.A. riots are affecting politics much more profoundly than the recession did. Social, not economic, issues dominate presidential elections and the national agenda.

In dependency politics the main issues are personal rather then structural. Social problems are seen as arising from behavior rather than lack of opportunity. The question is whether the poor are to be held responsible for their behavior. Liberals tend be hesitant about enforcing values, whereas conservatives are not. The underlying issue is competence. Liberals, I think, are much less likely than conservatives to believe that poor people are competent. Conservative rhetoric assumes that the poor can and should be expected to fulfill normal expectations such as working or obeying the law.

In dependency politics, behavior is an issue, but the structure of society is not. Because of the disorder of the underclass, large questions about the nature of the society, economic justice, and redistribution of income are effectively off the agenda. Until welfare and related issues are dealt with, we’re not, contrary to Kevin Phillips, going to have a serious politics of rich and poor.

The shift from progressive to dependency politics has affected both parties. It has forced the left and right to address a different agenda, often to their disadvantage. Conservatives have benefited in an immediate political sense—they’re sitting in the White House. But they have not been able to get their traditional economic agenda on the front burner. Conservatives traditionally want to reduce the scale of government, reduce interference in the private economy, and cut taxes and regulation. Ronald Reagan managed to do some of those things, but his cuts in government were quite limited and are likely to prove transient. His greatest achievement in domestic policy was to reform welfare—not exactly what he wanted, but the thing he was driven to do by the nature of the social problem. It is hard to argue for small government in a society where so many poor people have trouble functioning.

The Great Society fell short of liberal expectations as well, because middle-class voters would not support vast new social programs to benefit those who seemed undeserving. Recently, government has done little to counter the trends many see toward greater inequity among workers. The poverty of the inner city has sandbagged traditional social reforms of both the left and right.

Today, one might say, we are in the midst of a second civil war. We are fighting the secession of the poor from mainstream American institutions, particularly the world of work. As in the Civil War, Republicans are the natural leaders because they are willing to invoke public authority against the secessionists. The Democratic Party, in contrast, is divided; part of its constituency is among the secessionists. Just as during the Civil War, Republicans are commissioned to lead the nation, but not to pursue their economic agenda to its full extent. Rather, their purpose is to restore natural community. Until that has been accomplished, other social reforms, either liberal or conservative, are unlikely to take place.

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