What ever happened to poor people? Even on the left, Cornel West and Tavis Smiley’s Poverty Tour was an exception. Mostly, the talk is of the “middle class”—its stagnant wages, foreclosed houses, maxed-out credit cards and adult kids still living in their childhood bedrooms. The New York Times’s Bob Herbert, the last columnist who covered poverty consistently and with passion, is gone. Among progressive organizations, Rebuild the Dream, a new group co-founded with much fanfare by Van Jones and MoveOn, is typical. It bills its mission as “rebuilding the middle class”—i.e., the “people willing to work hard and play by the rules.” (What are those rules? I always wonder. And do middle-class people really work all that hard compared with a home health aide or a waitress, who cannot get ahead no matter how hard she works and how many rules she plays by?) The ten steps in its “Contract” contain many worthy suggestions—invest in America’s infrastructure, return to fairer tax rates, secure Social Security by lifting the cap on Social Security taxes. There’s nothing wrong with any of this as far as it goes—middle-class people have indeed suffered in the current recession. But let’s not forget that the unemployment rate for white college grads is 4 percent, and every single one of them has been written up in Salon. It’s who’s missing that troubles me: poor people.
The last time poor people were on the national agenda was during the run-up to welfare reform, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, written by Republicans and signed by President Clinton in 1996. Welfare reform was supposed to transform poor single mothers into full-time or near full-time workers by tying government assistance to employment. Millions of mothers got jobs, which might or might not have had the positive psychological effects reformers promised—but (surprise!) fifteen years later, they and their children are still poor or near poor. “Once they start to make around $13 an hour, they lose the supports that helped them get into the workplace,” feminist economist Randy Albelda told me by phone. “Your costs have gone up, you’re paying for healthcare, you get less in food stamps and you have less time with your kids—so you’re worse off.” “It’s an issue,” liberal economist Robert Cherry acknowledges. “Many women are trapped in near poverty. But once you add in the Earned Income Tax Credit and the childcare tax credit, they’re still better off than they were on welfare.”
Albelda notes the hidden costs of reform: with mothers working and often commuting long hours, adolescents now take care of the house and younger siblings, which means they have less time for school. She points out that most women who had been receiving cash assistance had already been working: welfare helped them out between jobs, or when they quit because of a family emergency. “They decided to reform women, but they didn’t reform the labor market. In the retail and hospitality fields poor women have flooded into, the employer has lots of flexibility—to hire, fire, cut your hours, rearrange your schedule. Workers have none.”
Some of the worst fears of welfare reform opponents seem not to have come to pass: women have not been pushed into relying on abusive men more than they had before. Nor have the more grandiose hopes of reform proponents: marriage rates have not increased for poor women (or, indeed, anyone else); out-of-wedlock births have continued to rise; “fatherhood” programs have not done much to reconnect disaffected fathers with their kids. Cherry argues that welfare reform, by reconceiving low-income single mothers as workers, has indirectly promoted some good policies: some states have made it a bit easier for them to claim unemployment insurance; some have expanded pre-kindergarten programs. But, he quickly adds, “how can you talk about public policy in the world we live in? Money for this, money for that? It’s an alternate universe.” Indeed, by turning welfare from an entitlement into a block grant program, reform made it vulnerable to the economy in a new way: the funding can be cut without much fuss. It certainly didn’t expand to deal with rising numbers of desperate people in the recession. Opponents warned that the boom times wouldn’t last, and they were right.
Could it be that the chief outcome of welfare reform was to take poor women off the table completely? Now that they are less often seen as monstrous stereotypes—welfare queens, mothers of eight, teenagers having a baby to get a free apartment—they are of no interest at all. As political scientist Lawrence Mead, a major proponent of reform, told me in an e-mail, “For most observers, welfare reform has ceased to be a grand issue of justice or inequality, and has become a problem of management.” Rebuild the Dream’s contract has nothing to say about these women, or their brothers: nothing about childcare, income support, housing, the drug wars that have destroyed so many black communities, the prisonification of America or, for that matter, racism and sexism, which still structure the labor market, including for “middle class” people. But it’s a free-market fantasy that all single mothers can work full time and raise a family in decency without significant government help. Once again, on the left as on the right, the ideal worker is conceived of as unencumbered, with the needs and circumstances of mothers, especially single mothers, ignored. But women are half the workforce now, and the vast majority of women have kids.
The failure to talk about the poor, male or female, doesn’t mean they’ve gone away. In 2009 the official poverty rate was 14.3 percent—43.6 million people, up from 39.8 million in 2008. One in three Americans is low income (below 200 percent of the poverty line). What kind of American dream leaves them out?