For decades, federal money directed at housing, health, education and income support reduced child poverty. But powerful opposition to such spending has led some anti-poverty advocates to downplay this fact. Take the August 19 NY Times Magazine cover story on persistent poverty in the Chicago neighborhood of Roseland (“Obama vs Poverty,” by Paul Tough). According to Tough, “What Roseland needs is not necessarily a big new infusion of federal dollars. What it needs more than anything else is an antipoverty strategy that is much more comprehensive and ambitious than what exists there today, an approach that focuses on improving outcomes for children from birth through adolescence.” Guess what, Paul? Federal dollars have funded such “comprehensive and ambitious” approaches, and cutbacks have made child poverty worse. Claiming that “a big infusion of federal dollars” is not necessary simply supports the Romney-Ryan-Republican agenda, and allows the false legend about federal anti-poverty efforts to be printed as fact.
Those who continually complain about the traditional media’s lack of coverage of poverty in the United States should be careful for what they wish. It can mean a story like Paul Tough’s piece on Roseland, which downplays the role of federal dollars and instead argues “it really would make a difference for a president to talk publicly about the challenges of poverty policy in the candid and thoughtful ways that Obama did as a senator and in his first presidential campaign.”
You read that right. Tough wants to see Obama talking more about urban poverty, while downplaying the importance of new federal funds.
Federal Money Is Key
Tough’s piece and similar analyses reflect a disconnect between the authors’ promotion of successful anti-poverty strategies and the funding source for implementation. In the same paragraph in which he concludes that “a big infusion of federal dollars” is not necessary, Tough urges Obama to “create more programs that take on, in a direct way, the family dislocations that are holding many poor children back, like home-visiting programs for parents, intensive early-childhood education targeted at the most disadvantaged families and mentoring programs for teenagers.”
Where would the money come from for such programs? Tough provides the answer: “The Obama administration has, in fact, financed programs in all those fields, but in relatively small and uncoordinated ways, and often only temporarily.”
Why then does Tough conclude new federal money is not needed? His entire article is an argument for new federal anti-poverty funding and the human consequences of three decades of federal retreat—yet he apparently feared that describing new federal dollars as the best solution would tar him as an outdated “tax and spend” liberal.
Few seek out that identity. And in Tough’s case, such branding would potentially limit promotional appearances and sales for his upcoming book, How Children Succeed.
We will hear a lot from Paul Tough as he hits the airwaves promoting “solutions” to poverty without new federal funds, just as we heard a lot from Geoffrey Canada, star of the anti-teachers union, anti-public school film, Waiting for Superman. Canada’s Harlem’s Children Zone is marketed as a case study for non-government anti-poverty solutions, which explains why billionaires funded the film and Canada’s group got $20 million from Goldman Sachs.
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”
John Ford’s immortal words from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance explain why Tough and others eager to be heard about urban poverty diminish the importance of federal dollars.
Since the Nixon presidency, the false legend that federal money does not “solve” poverty, and even make it worse, has triumphed over the actual facts. Facts show that the United States did not have a homelessness problem until federal funding for affordable housing was slashed, that federal welfare “reform” increased poverty by reducing funding to low-income households, and that the nation’s public education system benefits from increased federal dollars—yet the legend that this funding makes no difference overrides these facts.
Books or articles urging more federal dollars as a solution to poverty or other social programs are seen as too “old school” or “relics” of the 1960’s. After all, we have spent billions of dollars fighting poverty, so we are told that its persistence means that spending money does not work (an argument never made by proponents of defense spending, whose increases in annual outlays has no connection to achieving any particular results).
President Obama’s biggest mistake in dealing with poverty was not failing to talk about it enough, or give it a “sustained commitment,” as Tough suggests. Rather, it was his failing to propose steep domestic funding increases in his first two budgets when Democrats had congressional control, and then rallying the Democratic base for passage.
As a result of Obama’s caution not appear to be a traditional “tax and spend” Democrat, low-income communities across the nation never got the resources needed to make up for eight years of budget starvation under George W. Bush. And now that Republicans from Romney are focused on cutting federal funding for anti-poverty efforts even more, we have anti-poverty advocates like Tough diminishing the importance of federal money.
John Ford got it right: Decades of right-wing attacks on the impact of federal anti-poverty money have converted the false legend of its failure to fact. And that’s why even liberal reporters like Tough downplay federally-funded solutions to poverty, and get these articles printed in publications like the NY Times that editorially support increased federal dollars.
Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron. He is the author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.Filed under: Archive