Reducing Poverty is the Right Goal

John Halpin explains why progressives should focus less on reframing core ideas and more on building political will for policies that aid the poor.

There are some voices in the progressive world that disagree with the Center for American Progress’ national strategy to cut poverty in half in a decade.

Poverty reduction is an essential vision and organizing tool for groups ranging from Call to Renewal and Catholic Charities in the faith community, to ACORN and the AFL-CIO on the community activist and labor side, to Mayors Michael Bloomberg and Antonio Villaraigosa and presidential candidate John Edwards in the political world. Yet these voices believe that progressives should stop talking about poverty and start talking about “social inclusion.”

What is social inclusion?  In the words of its proponents:

“Social inclusion is based on the belief that we all fare better when no one is left to fall too far behind and the economy works for everyone. Social inclusion simultaneously incorporates multiple dimensions of well-being. It is achieved when all have the opportunity and resources necessary to participate fully in economic, social, and cultural activities which are considered the societal norm.”

At an abstract level, the ideas behind social inclusion are important and our Poverty Task Force recognizes that progressives need to broaden their poverty focus beyond income to include a range of issues that keep people out of the social mainstream.

It is somewhat baffling, however, to argue that progressives should scrap a poverty reduction goal altogether. Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chancellor Gordon Brown have committed the United Kingdom to a goal of ending child poverty by 2020 and halving it by 2010. They recognize how important it is to have a quantifiable end point in order to assess progress. They also talk about the need to address social exclusion. Since the United Kingdom finds no compelling reason to choose one approach over the other, why should American progressives?

More importantly, although a social inclusion approach might work well in Europe, which has a long history of social democracy and class organizing, it is a highly problematic communications approach to adopt in an American setting.

The time and money necessary to educate Americans about social inclusion—a term that even its proponents fail to define in a coherent and measurable way in their own documents—would be far better spent organizing people around a concrete goal of poverty reduction built on proven and pragmatic policy steps outlined by CAP and others.

Replacing a word with thousands of years of moral meaning with a hopelessly vague and confusing term grounded in sociological theory and 1970s French social activism is neither sound strategy nor good public communications.

1. Equivocating on a core moral principle is the height of political weakness. Maybe I’m just an old-school Catholic, but where I come from the First Beatitude doesn’t start with, “Blessed are the socially excluded in spirit.” Preferential treatment of the poor is a time-honored progressive value. Our nation’s democratic and faith traditions—grounded in notions of essential human dignity and equal worth—require us to do more to serve and uplift the least fortunate among us. While we must take steps to help all citizens, progressives throughout history have always maintained that the poor and disadvantaged require extra protections and assistance.

Denying the realities of poverty—or “reframing” our commitment to the poor as a commitment to something more nebulous and confusing—signals a total lack of conviction and overall timidity. Social reform movements invariably start from and are sustained by an overwhelming moral desire to correct a grave and identifiable injustice in society.

If progressives are unwilling to say that 37 million people living in poverty in a $13 trillion economy is an egregious national shame, then we should all just pack up shop and go work for a hedge fund.

2. Avoiding the word “poverty” because it might conjure up right-wing lies about the poor is no way to organize a progressive agenda. The argument of the “don’t-talk-about-poverty” anti-poverty crowd is built on two misleading claims: one, that the American public is horribly corrupted by conservative themes about the lazy, undeserving poor; and two, that because of these images, there is little public will to combat poverty.

Both of these claims are drastically overstated and are based on a misreading of public opinion data. Although it is true that Americans worry about the dependence of the poor on government (a sentiment that has declined noticeably since the early 1990s), this does not limit public support for doing more to help the most vulnerable. Similarly, Americans expect the poor to do their part and find work, but they understand that larger economic forces frequently prevent the poor from earning enough to get ahead.

A 2007 Pew poll—selectively cited in criticisms of the CAP approach—shows strong support for a governmental safety net and increasing worries about economic inequality. Roughly seven in 10 Americans believe that the government has a responsibility “to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves”—the highest level of agreement since the early 1990s. And the Pew poll shows that 63 percent of Americans who believe the poor are too dependent on government also maintain that the government has a responsibility to the most vulnerable.

Fifty-four percent of Americans believe that government should expand aid to the poor, even if it means we have to go deeper into debt—stable from 2003 but still at the highest level of agreement since 1994. And nearly three-quarters of Americans believe that “today it’s really true that the rich are getting richer while the poor get poorer”—a strongly held sentiment over the past 20 years.

Most Americans also understand that the poor do work—and share the same values as other Americans—but that they do not make enough to stay ahead. Sixty-one percent of respondents in a 2001 NPR/Kaiser/Kennedy School poll on poverty said that most poor people in the United States “are people who work but can’t earn enough money.” Fifty-four percent of Americans said that “too many jobs being part-time or low wage” is a major cause of poverty, compared to 46 percent who said “the welfare system” is a major cause. Additionally, 67 percent said that poor people have the same moral values as other Americans while only 21 percent said the poor have lower moral values.

I am not naïve about the limits of the public’s good will or the ease with which people demonize the poor. But public opinion on poverty is complicated, and these and other attitudes directly contradict the assertion that Americans hold immutable and negative views of the poor.

3. Regardless of the framing, the public strongly supports the elements of a poverty reduction plan. The advice that progressives should avoid the word “poverty” assumes that it will be difficult to build support for specific recommendations because the framing is faulty. In fact, the exact opposite is true. The public strongly supports the core recommendations in the CAP Task Force report—primarily the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, minimum wage, and child care support proposals—and also supports additional steps that would dramatically improve the lives of the poor and help expand the middle class.

CAP’s polling on tax reform from 2004 shows overwhelming majorities of Americans saying that enhancing the EITC and the Child Tax Credit should be major priorities for tax reform (80 and 86 percent, respectively). Support is also extremely high for increasing the minimum wage (83 percent in Gallup polling) and there is strong majority backing of expanded child care for working families according to polling done by the National Center for Children in Poverty. As our Task Force report shows, these four recommendations alone would reduce poverty by 26 percent.

Steps to encourage savings, fight predatory lending, and increase financial education for low-income families are also highly regarded by the public. And we know there is broad support for universal health care and enhanced early childhood education.

These are all proven solutions for reducing poverty and strengthening the middle class.

Given the totality of the empirical evidence and the known limitations of introducing confusing terms into public discourse, there is no compelling reason to replace a poverty reduction approach with an unproven social inclusion approach. We can at minimum talk about both. It makes far more sense in the near term to organize around proven language and to state clearly to Americans that poverty is wrong, counterproductive on moral and economic grounds, and should be reduced.

Progressives should focus less on reframing their core principles and more on building the political will necessary to turn pragmatic and popular policies into real help for the poor.

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John Halpin

Former Senior Fellow; Co-Director, Politics and Elections