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f the polls are to be believed, this could be the last
Edwards deserves some praise because he is the only major candidate who talks consistently about the poor. The problem is that he talks about poverty in an obsolete way, which suggests he has learned nothing from the past 40 years.
Edwards talks about poverty in economic terms. He vows to bring jobs back to poor areas and restrict trade to protect industries. He suggests that if we could take money from the rich and special interests, there'd be more for the underprivileged.
This kind of talk is descended from Marxist theory, which holds that we live in the thrall of economic conditions. What the poor primarily need is more money, the theory goes.
The core assumption is that economic forces determine culture and shape behavior. As William Julius Wilson wrote in "The Truly Disadvantaged," "If ghetto underclass minorities have limited aspirations, a hedonistic orientation toward life or lack of plans for the future, such outlooks ultimately are the result of restricted opportunities and feelings of resignation originating from bitter personal experiences and a bleak future."
Conservatives, on the other hand, believe that liberals have it backward. In reality, culture shapes economics. A person's behavior determines his or her economic destiny. If people live in an environment that fosters industriousness, sobriety, fidelity, punctuality and dependability, they will thrive. But the Great Society welfare system encouraged or enabled bad behavior, and popular culture glamorizes irresponsibility.
We've now had a 40-year experiment to determine which side is right, and while both arguments have merit, it's clear the conservatives have a more accurate view of poverty.
For decades welfare programs funneled money to the disadvantaged, but families dissolved and poverty rates remained stubbornly high. Then the nation switched tack in the mid-1990's, embracing policies that demanded work. Many liberals made a series of horrifying predictions about what welfare reform would do to the poor. These predictions, based on the paleoliberal understanding of poverty, were extravagantly wrong.
Now many scholars from across the political spectrum agree that money alone will not significantly improve the lives of poor families. "Not only does behavior matter," Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution wrote in The Public Interest last year, "it matters more than it used to. Growing gaps between the rich and poor in recent decades have been exacerbated by a divergence in the behavior of the two groups." If you graduate from high school, wait until marriage to have kids and work full time (at whatever job), it is almost certain that you will not remain poor.
Sawhill's research indicates that we could double the amount we spend on welfare programs, and we would not make an important dent in poverty. But if we could somehow give people the inner resources they need to hold onto a job, and bring illegitimacy rates back to 1970 levels, then poverty rates would plummet.
There are as many kinds of poverty as there are poor people. As David K. Shipler writes in his wonderfully observant new book, "The Working Poor," it takes emotional dexterity to climb out of poverty, as well as job skills. The poor often have "less agility to navigate around the pitfalls of a frenetic world driven by technology and competition."
While conservatives were right about the basic nature of poverty, liberals are right when they point out that simply getting people off welfare and into the world of work is not enough. Welfare reform means more single mothers are working, but they are having a hard time making progress into the middle class. We're going to need support programs to complete the successes of the 1990's.
All of this is absent from the world Edwards describes on the campaign
trail. It is absent from the populist worldview lately embraced by
We are moving toward a consensus on how to address the diverse problems that cause poverty. But when you go out on the campaign trail, you find politicians spreading polarizing disinformation. Edwards is right to talk about poverty, but by resorting to crude, populist rhetoric, he is leading in the wrong direction.