More than 400 thousand Philadelphians live in poverty. The United States, even after the latest decline, still has more than 43 million men, women, and children below the poverty line. And nearly one half of the world’s population—more than 3 billion people—are poor (more than 1.3 billion of them in extreme poverty).
And yet the policy debate remains the same: how do we get poor people to get themselves out of the “culture of poverty”?
Not how do eliminate poverty? Or, alternatively, how do we create the economic and social institutions that don’t, on a regular and sustained basis, drive millions of people into and keep many of them in poverty?
Instead, what we get from Steve Volk [ht: ja] on Philadelphia, just like from Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo (in their book Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty) for the Third World, is a focus on the pathologies of the poor and the strategies that can be tested and implemented so that poor people can find their way out of poverty.
Now, I’ll admit, Volk writes (of Mattie McQueen and other poor Philadelphians) with more heart than Banerjee and Duflo seem to be able to muster. But it’s the same basic idea—that there’s something enduring about poverty, which pertains to poor people and “their” culture and which needs to be disrupted with the right sort of economic interventions.
In Volk’s case, the problem is “generational poverty”—such that poverty is passed down through two or more generations. And the solution is the “two-gen” strategy, such as the HIPPY (Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters) program Bill Clinton celebrated at the Democratic National Convention.
In practical terms, the strategy means providing educational support to kids while offering the full range of housing, social, mental-health and economic services to their parents. “In hindsight, this way of approaching generational poverty looks kind of obvious,” says Susan Landry, director and founder of the Children’s Learning Institute in Houston, Texas. “Everyone wants to help children. What the two-gen strategy recognizes is that children exist in families.”
Educating children without stabilizing the home, says Landry, puts kids in an impossible position — requiring them to lead their parents. Making a child’s home safer and less stressful yields huge benefits in the child’s ability to learn. And two-gen strategies are gaining support among conservatives and progressives alike. Republican governors like Bill Haslam of Tennessee and Gary Herbert of Utah champion the two-gen approach for imparting a sense of responsibility to parents and streamlining government — parking disparate social agencies under one roof. Paul Ryan, Republican Speaker of the House, recently told NPR that helping children requires helping their families — a truism of two-gen thinking.
What is true of all such programs—the ones Volk writes about as well as those that are tested through randomized control trials by Banerjee and Duflo—is they focus on improving individual decisions and household environments, not on the history and dynamics of larger economic and social structures that create and perpetuate mass poverty. In other words, it’s all about individual, not social, responsibility and outcomes. The goal, it seems, is to change individual decisions and promote the mobility of a select few up and out of poverty—and, by the same token, to avoid an analysis of the kinds of changes that need to be made in the economy in order to end existing poverty and prevent its recurrence in the future.*
The problem, as I see it, is not a culture of poverty. It’s a culture of poor economics.
*I am reminded of an early World Development Report (unfortunately, I don’t remember the exact year) in which it was shown that a redistribution of productive assets (such as land reform) was much more likely to end poverty than other reforms (such as universal schooling). However, the authors of the report argued, land reform often faces social and political opposition, especially from landlords, and therefore needs to be set aside since it is an unrealistic strategy.