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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Poverty--The Big Question

Can programs end poverty?

Last week I participated in an all day Atlantic Magazine Forum on the War on Poverty-50 years later. Today, I just finished reading Nina Munk's The Idealist, the story of Jeffrey Sach's Millennial Village experiment to achieve The End of Poverty (the name of his book) in Africa.  A few weeks ago I attended an excellent conference in Denver in which hundreds of public-private programs in sustainable development promoting equity were showcased. Poverty and programs to end it are on my mind. 

At the Atlantic Forum, it was commonly agreed that "safety-net" programs certainly helped those who are suffering the consequences of poverty at a particular time (like now) and often give individuals and families some time and space to get education and a job and maybe even some equity. Just because the percentage of poor has not dropped that much, we have to remember that they aren't the same people. There were lots of stories even by presenters of their brush with poverty and their gratitude for food stamps, housing subsidies, headstart, welfare payments until they could get on their feet.

Most everyone urged that we try more "structural" solutions to poverty, e.g. job creation, education, desegregation through mixed income housing, minimum wage and earned income tax credit. A bit higher level of analysis was offered by Richard Rothstein who identified the "de jure" segregation of races and classes through government supported financing in housing development and by Cory Booker who identified the New Jim Crow (a book by Michelle Alexander which I am just starting) that creates a special class of mass incarcerated among people of color.

Do programs end poverty? No, not really.

And that leads me to the big question. I asked it of Paul Krugman at the Forum; but he did not, perhaps could not, answer it. I also asked it of Rothstein by letter and we may see what his response will be.

Is it the way that our economy is constructed and run that makes it desirable or even necessary for an underclass along with oligarchs? Is exploitation built into the national and now, thanks to US hegemony, global economy?

The Atlantic forum generally dealt with 1) focusing on the poor we have now, whatever the cause, by maintaining or expanding safety net services and 2) looking at some of the structural solutions like making jobs and educating people for jobs from early childhood on. 

Place based examples were cited. But I keep asking the question that Michael Harrington asked in my generation. Is there a need for a more basic transformation? And what are steps towards that?

I don’t mean to ask this as a way to undermine safety net, fair housing, CRA, and jobs programs—the way Tea Partiers do (focusing again the angry white low income workers on the wrong targets), but more to practice them in a way that chips away at more fundamental patterns of our present political economy.

In any case I want to pursue this question in the weeks ahead: 1) by considering the dimensions of our US/global political economy, 2) considering if exploitation and therefore a lower class is inevitable in this kind of economy, 3) identify non-exploitative economies or what a non-exploitative economy might look like, 4) (using all the buzzwords) explore possibilities for a sustainable and equitable economy of scale, and finally 5) decide what this means for my action. 

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