Why Programs for the Poor Falter

By , Mary Warner Marien teaches at Syracuse University.

THE UNDESERVING POOR: FROM THE WAR ON POVERTY TO THE WAR ON WELFARE by Michael B. Katz, New York: Pantheon Books, 1989, 293 pp.,

$22.95 cloth, $14.95 paper

IN what amounts to an extensive elaboration of the last chapter of his 1986 book, ``In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America,'' Michael Katz assumes a magisterial position, beyond left and right, from which to review relatively recent public assistance programs in the United States. Beginning with the war on poverty, he arrays the poverty policies of the last 25 years and highlights how they have grappled with the notion of the undeserving poor.

Recommended: Fifty years after 'war on poverty': Who's poor now? (+video)

For Katz, the success and failure of antipoverty programs stem from their initial intellectual foundations. He maintains that by locating the war on poverty in a separate federal agency, the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), Lyndon Johnson gave the Congress, other federal agencies, and an occasionally hostile public an easy target. Worse, by calling it a war, Johnson set up the expectation for a quick and total conquest that could not be fulfilled. (Drug warriors, take notice.)

The war on poverty did have its victories. It moved millions of Americans, most of them elderly, above the poverty line, and it funded Operation Headstart, which gave preschool children a boost. Nevertheless, the war on poverty failed to produce an all-encompassing theory of poverty with which to guide its programs and to fend off its critics.

In the end, the war on poverty produced dizzying piles of data, but it did not confront the basic question that social welfare workers and their opponents had been arguing for more than a century: Does public assistance make people less willing to work?

The steady decrease of manufacturing jobs, coupled with the growth of minimum-wage positions, and the flight to the suburbs gradually impoverished many large cities. Local governments, facing bankruptcy, trimmed welfare rolls. With their own budget troubles, states could not assume the additional burden.

At the national level, conservatives began to formulate an answer to the question that the poverty warriors had avoided. Their response seemed to get the federal government off the hook for public assistance programs.

However well-intentioned the war on poverty may have been, it appeared to conservative critics to have induced dependency and indolence among the poor. Curtailing welfare programs would be tough on individuals, but it would also end their demoralization. In conservative theory, cutting welfare benefits would stimulate the economy, creating jobs that poor people, freed from their dependence on the public dole, would be forced to take. In the long run, belt-tightening would benefit everyone.

Liberalism, Katz observes, collapsed under this conservative social analysis. In battles, both moral and electoral, conservatives convincingly articulated the worries of average Americans.

AT present, two conflicting images of the urban poor dominate the popular imagination of poverty. The homeless, who appear passive, have become the fact and symbol of the failure of economic recovery to keep people from falling into poverty. They are the most recent incarnation of the deserving poor. By contrast, the so-called underclass, consisting of mostly inner-city black and Hispanic males, is the latest ``crude synonym'' for the undeserving poor.

Katz contends that liberal social scientists have done little to contradict the image of the menacing underclass, an image which masks the fact that most of the poor work and are white.

Katz hopes that reconstructing the discourse about poverty and welfare will become a central intellectual challenge of the 1990s. With a growing number of theorists and researchers, Katz recommends that moving toward a universal system of public assistance - something like social security - would be inherently more equitable, and could foster a more cohesive society.

Still, Katz has witnessed too much to be a Pollyanna. ``There is every reason to predict,'' he writes, ``that extensive poverty will disfigure the lives of tens of millions of Americans for the indefinite future and that its emerging features will be etched into the national landscape.'' On the high ground beyond left and right, he offers a bleak view - and not many points of light.

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