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Maureen Lane

Conservatives Flummoxed By Poverty

Last Thursday I appeared on NY1's "Inside City Hall" program to debate Heather MacDonald from the Manhattan Institute over Mayor Bloomberg's new poverty initiative that gives cash directly to poor families for certain positive actions. My post from the other week explains the policy and my critique of it.

I stated that I do not see the mayor's program as public policy but rather as charity from him. Heather did not think it was good policy because it rewarded people for doing the right thing- something they should already be doing. Heather went on to define caring about your family as a “bourgeois value” rather than a value shared by all people.

Heather's premise is that people are not doing things like, taking kids to school on time, going to PTA, going to doctor's appointments, because they have bad behavior and they just need to "do the right thing" like the rest of "us" (by which she must mean the presumably middle class viewers).

Setting poor people outside society by drawing a "them versus us" dichotomy is a tried and true way for ideologues to frame arguments for not working directly on economic and public policy solutions to poverty.

I submit, the premise that Heather advances and that most conservative think tanks advance is that poor women's bad behavior allows for raising children without fathers and marriage is the answer to poverty.

I have said this over and over; the majority of families come to welfare during a crisis: a health emergency, death of a spouse, loss of a job or housing, for example. Almost 40% are families fleeing domestic violence. Marriage is not the answer to a domestic violence crisis and so often is already part of the problem. Generally speaking, poor families are coming from poor communities where poor women and poor men are sidelined from family sustaining jobs.

Mimi Abramovitz, renowned author and professor of social policy at Hunter College School of Social Work, recently wrote "In 2005, 12.6% of the population (or 37 million people) were poor up from its all-time low of 11.3% in 2000 and higher than in 1979......Even…African American (24.9%) and Latino (21.8%) rates and … Caucasian (8.3%) rates rose above their all-time 2000 lows......Meanwhile, the American Dream the promise that work pays faded for the working and middle class. In 2004, 7.8 million people aged 16 or older spent at least 27 weeks either working or looking for a job but earned below poverty-level wages in companies that provided few basic benefits such as healthcare or parental leave. More than 58% of these working poor women and men were on the job full-time and 90% worked at some time during the year."

Like Heather MacDonald, the Mayor of New York is clearly flummoxed by poverty. Charity is a response but not the response of a policy-making leader. Heather MacDonald and other conservative thinkers are also flummoxed in their own way. Their ideas are infused with the dust and grime of worn-out stereotypes. Their solutions reflect the stuffy answers that do not lend themselves to innovation and advancement.

Maureen Lane: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 1:32 PM, Sep 20, 2007 in New York | Welfare
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