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Poverty of Ideas: Despite Economy, Right Still Blames Poor for Being Poor

Marjorie Valbrun

Almost as soon as recent census numbers were released, conservative politicians, commentators and researchers at public policy think thanks were commenting on the role of behavior and personal responsibility, or lack thereof, as factors contributing to the high poverty rate.

When the U.S. Census Bureau recently released its annual report on the
economic status of American households, few people were surprised that
black and Hispanic households showed the highest increase in poverty
rates. The two groups were hit harder by the economic recession and had
higher rates of unemployment than white and Asian households, so news
that poverty rates for them surpassed 25 percent in 2009, though
troubling, was not entirely unexpected.

A surprise was that
political conservatives continued to blame poor African-Americans and
Hispanics for the very act of being poor even as 43.6 million Americans
of all racial stripes, 12.3 percent of them white, are living in poverty
and collectively struggling to survive the fallout of an economic
downturn—widespread layoffs, massive home foreclosures and loss of
retirement savings and other assets.

The new poverty figures are
the largest recorded by the Census Bureau in 51 years and reflect a
consecutive increase in U.S. poverty over the past three years. They are
an indication of the powerful economic, political and structural forces
that play a role in the financial well-being of American households and
that tend to have a more significant and negative impact on already
poor and struggling families.

President Barack Obama acknowledged
as much during a recent speech at the annual legislative conference of
the Congressional Black Caucus.

“This historic recession, the
worst since the Great Depression, has taken a devastating toll on all
sectors of our economy,” Obama said. “It's hit Americans of all races
and all regions and all walks of life. But as has been true often in our
history and as has been true in other recessions, this one came down
with a particular vengeance on the African-American community.”

reminded the audience, though he probably didn’t have to, that
African-Americans were at an economic disadvantage before the economic

“Long before this recession, there were black men and
women throughout our cities and towns who’d given up looking for a job,
kids standing around on the corners without any prospects for the
future,” he said. “Long before this recession, there were blocks full of
shuttered stores that hadn’t been open in generations. So, yes, this
recession made matters much worse, but the African-American community
has been struggling for quite some time.”

Yet almost as soon as
the census numbers were released, conservative politicians, commentators
and researchers at public policy think thanks were commenting on the
role of behavior and personal responsibility, or lack thereof, as
factors contributing to the high poverty rate. They also cited the
purportedly pernicious affects of government-funded anti-poverty
programs, the very ones that kept more people from falling below the
poverty line.

A report by the conservative Heritage Foundation on
the same day as the census report cited millions of children living in
poverty in single-parent households and asserted that the “principal
cause is the absence of married fathers in the home.” The foundation
report contends that government entitlement programs such as welfare,
food stamps and income tax credits that mostly benefit unwed mothers and
their children, keep families—especially those with black and Hispanic
children—in poverty and are “disincentives to marriage because benefits
are reduced as a family’s income rises.”

The foundation also
separately asserts that the average poor American is not as bad off as
liberal activists, media and some politicians would have the public

According to the census report, about 15.5 million
children under 18, the majority of them black, were living in poverty in
2009 compared with 14.1 million in 2008. The poverty rate increased
across all types of families. For married-couple families, it grew to
5.8 percent from 5.5 percent and for female-headed families to 29.9
percent from 28.7 percent.

Not all poor families qualify for all
of the various assistance programs, and amounts they receive are
relatively modest, enough to keep some from falling below the official
poverty line of $21,954 for a family of four but not enough to move them
far above it.


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The foundation report concludes that government
intervention could reduce childhood poverty by promoting and supporting
policies that encourage marriage among low-income couples. The Urban
Institute and other nonpartisan research organizations offer other
practical approaches that rely less on value judgments and more on
proven government interventions and increased support for struggling
two-parent homes. They also call for larger tax subsidies for poor
families similar to those that help middle-income families buy a home,
save for retirement and pay for their children's education.

overly simplistic theory of “marriage as an antidote to poverty”
overlooks many important factors that contribute to poverty, and poverty
experts do not unanimously accept it. While children raised in
two-parent families tend to have better life outcomes, marriage by unwed
parents does not guarantee lifting families out of poverty. That’s true
especially if couples are not compatible or in love, or committed to
making a marriage work; if husband, wife or both lack necessary
education or professional skills to secure a well-paying job and enhance
the household’s income; and if financial or other stress in the
marriage leads to domestic discord or violence.

Marriage would
not automatically improve the dismal unemployment rate among black men,
some of it the result of racial discrimination in hiring practices, or
erase other structural barriers to economic well-being, nor would it
suddenly end negative behaviors that conservatives say inhibit economic

“Certainly there some individuals for whom behavior
is an important issue, but the bigger problems are a series of factors
that affect African-Americans more than they do other groups,” said
Margaret Simms, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and an expert on
the economic well-being of African-Americans.

The conservative
commentary conveniently overlooks many of these contributing factors,
among them that African-Americans, and to a lesser extent Hispanics, are
more racially and geographically segregated than other groups and less
likely to live in areas with ample economic opportunities. They often
have no access to good public schools that are economically and racially
diverse and adequately prepare them for college, selective training
programs or skilled jobs. They also generally have no access to good
health care, which can mean health problems prevent them from getting
and keeping good jobs and seriously drain limited incomes.

are also less likely to be in social networks where they have access to
the jobs out there,” Simms said. “Most people don’t find jobs through
want-ads but through friends, family or neighbors who know about a job
opening at their workplace or know about a place that is hiring.”

they live in large urban areas, as many do, and don’t own cars, as many
don’t, they have difficulty getting to jobs in outer suburbs.

isolation in neighborhoods where there are few job opportunities make
it difficult to have access to where the jobs are and to get to them,”
Simms said. “Low-income African-Americans are farther away from the jobs
they would be qualified for. Transportation systems are not typically
set up to move people from cities to residential suburbs where jobs

Conservatives say the Obama administration should spend
less on public assistance programs even though they have proven to be an
important safety net for struggling families. Many also oppose
extension of unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed and a
temporary program that created 250,000 mostly private-sector jobs for
low-income parents and youth.

Robert Greenstein, executive
director of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and an
expert on anti-poverty, said cutting back such programs would be a

“If Congress fails to extend these measures and
unemployment remains high, poverty and hardship almost certainly will
climb still higher next year,” he said in a statement.

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