Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Blog Banter - Mickey Kaus, in his blog dated May 19, 2003, claims that welfare reform's success lies in the fact that "life is getting better in America's 'underclass' ghettos." His argument rests on a Robert Pear article which refers to researcher Paul Jargowsky's finding that "Concentrated poverty — the share of the poor living in high-poverty neighborhoods — declined among all racial and ethnic groups, especially African-Americans." Kaus claims that Pear's explanation of the reasons for Jargowsky's findings is the result PRIMARILY of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. Kaus writes:

Pear rightly credits welfare reform, in part, with this success. The reasons seem obvious: welfare reform produced a dramatic jump in the participation of single mothers in the labor force. When you work, you not only get richer--you also tend to get out of your neighborhood and discover the rest of your city. Working also breaks down stereotypes of lower income, single mothers--especially African-American single mothers-that may underlie resistance in non-poor areas to having such people as neighbors. Not to mention the gauzier benefits of working, like "role-modeling" and the effect of the disciplined rhythm of work on home life and school performance.
Though Kaus hedges with his "in part" qualifier, the centrality of welfare reform to his own argument is indisputable. But the fact is that Pear himself never credits welfare reform as the cause of the decline in concentrated poverty. The only reference in the report to welfare reform as a partial explanation for the deconcentration of poverty comes from Bruce Katz, director of the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy at the Brookings Institution, whom Pear quotes as saying, "The decline in concentrated poverty represents, in part, the triumph of smart federal policies that demolished failed public housing, rewarded work and overhauled welfare." In fact, Pear's article really seems to be saying that the primary reason for the deconcentration of poverty is NOT welfare reform, but rather the razing of public housing projects and the population dispersions that came with this. In fact, Pear starts his article by writing:
Poverty in the United States became far less concentrated in the 1990's as public housing projects were torn down and millions of poor people left urban slums for other neighborhoods, a new study of Census Bureau data says.
As someone who has paid close attention to this process in my home town of New Orleans, I can confirm that the deconcentration of poverty has come from precisely this "razing of public housing projects" policy. However, I can also confirm that this "deconcentration of poverty" has most definitely NOT meant that life is getting better for those removed from public housing. It certainly doesn't mean that they leave their homes in the "ghettos" because they have better jobs. They are being kicked out of their homes without any concern for whether or not they have of jobs. In fact, evicting them often means they risk losing jobs because of relocation to areas that lack adequate transportation to get them to their jobs. And even if they do have jobs (which, by the way, they probably had before "welfare reform" or before being evicted from their homes in the public housing projects), they are still likely to end up poorer because their income is the same, while their rents are likely higher. Sadly, many who have jobs and are struggling to break the cycle of poverty find themselves entering the ranks of the homeless because of these disruptions and through no fault of their own. And, as you might imagine, it is hard to be homeless and hold on to a job.

The simple fact is that absolute poverty has grown, not diminished. In fact, even in Pear's article one finds the following tidbit that Kaus conveniently overlooks: "Despite the strong economy, the number of people classified as poor in the 2000 census was slightly higher than the number counted a decade earlier." So, the upshot is that poor people aren't better off. In fact, as I pointed out, they are likelier poorer. And, as Pear pointed out, there are even more people poor today than before welfare reform. It's simply that these greater numbers of poor people are just more spread out, moving to and living on the streets of your neighborhood and mine (since they can't afford the rents), and less concentrated in the one area where they can afford the rent - all of which makes it even more difficult for social agencies, even privately-sponsored ones, to address the problem effectively.

Kaus sees the "deconcentration of poverty" that has resulted essentially from forced evictions as a positive sign of the success of welfare reform. I see the increase in "absolute poverty" and the hugh societal disruptions caused by the "deconcentration of poverty" and the dispersion of poverty as even more problematic. And welfare reform, if it has anything at all to do with it, tends to exacerbate the problem. If "absolute poverty" has increased over the years, I certainly don't see where Kaus gets off saying that welfare reform has helped.

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