Politics & Policy

A More Serious Poverty Debate

We need one.

This is a time of great promise — and great peril — for low-income Americans. On the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, we are once again engaged in a debate about sources of and solutions to poverty. But we are still mired in the same slogans and slurs that have prevented that debate from being anything other than an opportunity for cheap point-scoring against the political opposition.

The latest example of this is the exchange between Representative Paul Ryan and the Congressional Black Caucus. In response to Ryan’s poorly framed and easily misunderstood account of the reasons for low employment in the inner city, the CBC let loose the cries of “racism!” and summoned the congressman to appear before them to atone for his sins.

On the extremely rare occasion when a major conservative political figure evidences any concern at all for the poor, it’s not long before he or she stumbles into some clumsy or awkward formulation, prompting a massive counterstrike from the gatekeepers of poverty programs, resulting in a hasty retreat by the conservative back to the safety of his or her ideological lines, muttering, “There’s no votes there anyway — remind me again why I even raised this issue in the first place?”

And so the issue of poverty settles back once again into its accepted place, ignored by chastened conservatives and exploited by liberals confident that they still hold the moral high ground. The former propose no solutions, and the latter propose government solutions that are wildly improbable and expensive, reflected in proposed federal budgets that even the Democratic leadership doesn’t take seriously.

When Representative Ryan approached me in the waning days of the presidential election of 2012, my first, admittedly uncharitable, thought was, “Oh yes, the Republican whiz kids just woke up to the fact that there aren’t enough white people in America anymore to elect Mitt Romney. So they’re coming to one of the few black activists who will even return their calls to see if they can’t scrounge up some black votes.” I speak from experience — that has happened before, and after a fleeting moment of interest in the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise and the problems of low-income people, conservative leaders typically move on to issues that mobilize their base, rather than trying to reach beyond it.

But from our first trip together to Cleveland to visit groups that are working successfully to solve the problems of poverty, I knew that Paul was different. Sure, he is a self-proclaimed “policy wonk,” which means that his first inclination is to talk at abstract-systems levels about problems, and to cite leading social-science experts who have written about poverty. There has been an ample supply of such experts on the conservative side, who have described in lurid statistical detail the “failings” and “character defects” of the inner-city poor, leaving us with the impression that their poverty is the fitting result of their own poor choices. It’s easy to see why erstwhile defenders of the poor have their radar tuned directly to the field of moral character, because here, sooner or later, will come the utterance that will trigger the launch signal for the trusty charge of racism.

But Paul had a different purpose in coming to Cleveland. He’s had a different purpose in the visits we’ve made together since then, to Denver, San Antonio, Indianapolis, New Brunswick, and other cities.

Paul didn’t come with me to lecture the poor about their moral depravity. That’s more easily done in the secure and tastefully decorated lecture halls of Washington’s think tanks.

Paul came to listen and learn. He sat for hours with individuals emerging from poverty and heard stories of how they did it, what worked for them to break the bonds of addiction or family tragedy or unemployment. Yes, government programs had often supported them in time of need, and some government funding was coming to the groups that had helped them, along with private charity. Paul didn’t hear denunciations of federal programs that are bloated and expensive, because many of them aren’t; many of them work well and deserve continued support.

But he also heard that those programs could be helpful only after individuals had made the deeply personal choice to make fruitful use of the services offered. That meant first a profound change of heart, a decision to take charge of their own lives, often with the help of grassroots groups that were in turn taking charge of their own neighborhoods. There was nothing demeaning, defeatist, or depraved in the stories he heard — they were stories of responsibility, redemption, and resurrection. They were stories of individuals who were able to lift themselves out of lives that — contrary to conservative stereotypes — no one would choose to live, through a recovery of moral character that — contrary to liberal stereotypes — is not “blaming the victim,” but empowering individuals to begin the climb out of poverty, with some of those steps supported by government funding. In short, they were stories of profound hope, not passive despair.

This is an altogether new way to begin to think about poverty. It begins by asking the individuals who have successfully transcended it, What worked for you? How did you do it? What kept you going when so many others haven’t made it? Only then, after we’ve heard the stories of success, should we begin to think about public policies that make likely more of those stories. We know all we need to know about the massive social and economic forces bearing down on the poor and making their ascent so difficult. But why don’t we talk to those who have made that ascent, and find out what routes they took? And then we can begin to think about ways to redirect private and public support to the routes that work, and redirect individuals away from those that don’t.

Now, it’s easy to see why it can be tricky for a public figure to talk about this. Our ideological guardians are standing by with finely tuned rhetorical scans, just waiting for the fatal slip, the remark that will enable us to sort the figure immediately into our “racist blame-the-victim reactionary” category on the one hand or our “budget-busting mushy-headed radical” category on the other. Any mention of personal behavior, and the “reactionary” trapdoor opens; any mention of more government spending, and the “radical” trapdoor is sprung. At a time when the liberal media can spend months explaining how the plutocratic Koch brothers are taking over America, and conservative media can whip up a feeding frenzy about whether or not President Obama knows how to spell “respect,” no wonder most politicians stay away from the amply booby-trapped issue of poverty.

But for the sake of the poor, we have to overcome our understandable wariness and begin a full and honest conversation about poverty. We have to understand that neither character alone nor government programs alone are going to solve the problem, and that we have before us, if we only choose to see them and support them, examples of groups that have combined renewed character and supportive private and public generosity to lift individuals out of poverty.

Paul asked me to show him those groups. He was and is willing to learn how they work, not by reading studies that aggregate results from hundreds of sites, but by going into poor neighborhoods one by one and talking to low-income people face-to-face. In my years of work with the poor, and having learned to tune up my own BS detector to a fine edge, I can say that I’ve never seen this sort of willingness to learn before.

I’ve urged Paul to talk about what he’s seen, whom he’s met, and what he has heard about what works. This is a new way of coming at poverty, requiring a new way of talking about it. Like anything new, this will mean there are false starts and missteps along the way. But I am going to urge him to keep visiting, keep learning, keep talking. I’m hoping that those around him will be willing to put down their ideological bludgeons long enough to engage in that conversation as well, and forgo the ample opportunities this issue presents for cheap political point-scoring. Just as Paul is showing an incredible generosity of spirit, I hope the rest of us will, as well. The poor themselves are trying to tell us what works for them. But we have to stop shouting at each other long enough to hear what they’re trying to say.

— Robert L. Woodson Sr. is founder and president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.

Robert L. Woodson Sr. is the founder and president of The Woodson Center, which works to empower local leaders in troubled neighborhoods to increase public safety, spur upward mobility, and inspire racial unity in America. His new book is Red, White, and Black: Rescuing American History from Revisionists and Race Hustlers.


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