The Limits of the Asset-Building
Approach to Fighting Poverty
Given the limited alternatives to welfare reform in today’s political climate, some very progressive thinkers have joined a growing number of analysts, activists, administrators, and policymakers who believe that the some of the most feasible progressive alternatives lie in promoting asset accumulation by the poor.1
Asset-building policy initiatives are touted as transcending political differences and offering something appealing to both the left and the right. For the right, asset-building discourse moves policy away from income redistribution across the classes and refocuses policy on supporting lowincome individuals in becoming more self-sufficient by way of taking steps to enhance their own wealth production via acquiring assets, such as an owned home or the assets that come from developing one’s own human capital, say via education or training. President George W. Bush made policies aimed at savings for assets the centerpiece of his “ownership society” that he detailed in his renomination acceptance speech in 2004.2
For the left, asset-building policy discourse provides a good approach to overcoming how persistent economic inequality translates over time into durable lines of social and economic stratification, often reinforced by racial segregation and discrimination, making mobility up and out of
1. For the book that jump-started the project to move welfare policy toward emphasizing asset building, see Michael W. Sherraden, Assets and the Poor: A New American Welfare Policy (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1991). For a symposium on the idea as it developed, see Thomas M. Shapiro and Edward N. Wolff, eds. Assets for the Poor: The Benefits of Spreading Asset Ownership (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2001). For a survey of the major programs in place that promote asset building, see Michelle Miller-Adams, Owning Up: Poverty, Assets, and the American Dream (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2002). The last two books were commissioned by the Ford Foundation as part of its Asset Building and Community Development initiative—one of three major funding streams by the foundation.
2. Warren Vieth, “Bush Makes His Pitch for ‘Ownership Society’,” Los Angeles Times, September 5, 2004, p. 25.