Poor Vision -- the War against the Poor: The Underclass and Anti-Poverty Policy by Herbert J. Gans

By Sugrue, Thomas J. | Tikkun, September 1995 | Go to article overview
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Poor Vision -- the War against the Poor: The Underclass and Anti-Poverty Policy by Herbert J. Gans


Sugrue, Thomas J., Tikkun


The War Against the Poor: The Underclass and Anti-Poverty Policy, by Herbert J. Gans. Basic Books, 1995. 208 pp. $21.

We live in a strange and disturbing political world. A Democratic president proposes an overhaul of the welfare state that Reagan and Bush imagined but could never implement. A right-wing dominated Congress denounces Clinton's sweeping proposal to "end welfare as we know it" as soft-bellied liberalism. The welfare debate has shifted so far to the Right in the last two years that family-values centrist Daniel Patrick Moynihan now guards the liberal flank.

Whether Democratic or Republican, there is a depressing sameness to the analysis of poverty shaping what are probably the most sweeping changes in the welfare state since the New Deal. Liberals and conservatives alike share a new consensus that the most pressing social problem of the 1990s is not poverty but the behavior of poor people. The solution is coercion and punishment.

In the demonology of the New Right, poverty is a symptom of immorality. Like born-again Calvinists, conservatives view poverty as the outward manifestation of inner depravity. The poor, in their view, are lazy, violent, sex-crazed, and addicted to drugs. Bad mothers and absent fathers breed a generation of criminal boys and promiscuous girls. Barely beneath the surface are assumptions about racial inferiority. Although the majority of poor people in the United States are white, the popular image of poverty has a Black face.

The Democratic mainstream has accepted the premises of the right-wing critique of welfare, even as it repudiates Republican mean-spiritedness. In place of shock therapy, Democrats speak of "tough love." Centrist Democrats share the Republican view that the poor are dangerously dependent on government assistance. They concur that poor people should be made to work. They agree that bad parenting causes poverty. They do not dispute the Right's diagnosis of the problem but offer a kinder, gentler prescription for reform: Trim welfare, mandate work, but provide the helping hand of training and education programs. However compassionate he sounds, Clinton's welfare reform proposal shares with Republican ones the belief that behavior modification is the solution to poverty.

The tragedy of current welfare debates is that they occur in the midst of a swiftly changing economy--but utterly fail to grapple with wrenching structural change. Some conservatives (following Lawrence Mead) believe that jobs are plentiful, but poor people simply refuse to accept them. On the harder Right, others follow Charles Murray and Richard Hermstein in contending that cutting welfare will force poor people of color to accept jobs appropriate to their inferior intelligence. Liberals (following Robert Reich) emphasize the educational mismatch between the poor and the new, high- technology job market. They argue that the solution to inequality is just a matter of educating the poor to become "symbolic analysts," or at least to adapt to the demands of the new computerized workplaces of the future. Put laptops in classrooms, and the children of the inner city will eventually join their better-educated counterparts in the office towers and corporate campuses of the global economy.

Both liberals and conservatives are blinded by wishful optimism about the ability of the American economy to provide adequate employment. While politicians decide how to reinvigorate a work ethic among the poor, structural changes in the economy are wreaking havoc in poor people's lives. The jobs that provided the bedrock of economic security for masses of Americans forty years ago have largely disappeared. Those that remain are likely to be low-wage, insecure, and without benefits. Since 1980, the most rapid job growth has occurred in the service sector, particularly in part-time or temporary work. The consequences of this economic transformation are rising inequality, increasing poverty, and urban devastation.

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