by Joseph Coletti
Senior Fellow, Fiscal Studies, John Locke Foundation
“Human advancement is not a mere question of almsgiving, but rather of sympathy and cooperation among classes who would scorn charity,” writes W.E.B. DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk. Three recent works with policy suggestions echo some aspect of DuBois and his work and show how hard it is to bring about advancement.
The most self-conscious is The Souls of Poor Folk, which is intended as “an assessment of the conditions today and trends of the past 50 years in the United States [since Martin Luther King, Jr., led the Poor People’s Campaign],” but which cannot rise above blame and bad data. In misrepresenting, misinterpreting, and misidentifies those conditions and trends, they do a disservice to the eloquent originality of the report they intend to honor.
For example, the report claims that “the richest nation in the world has sufficient resources to protect the environment and ensure dignified lives for all its people. The problem is a matter of priorities as more and more of our wealth flows … into our bloated Pentagon budget.” Between 1968 and 2015, however, national defense spending shrank from 46 percent of federal spending to 16 percent (a 65 percent decrease) while spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and income security programs grew from 24 percent of federal outlays to 62 percent. Looking more closely, in 1968, the newly created Medicare and Medicaid programs together were just 4 percent of federal outlays, but by 2015 they were 23 percent of the budget, a 552 percent increase.
Myron Magnet, writing in City Journal where he is editor-at-large, compares Teach for America participants to white New England teachers during Reconstruction as described by DuBois. He sees education as a critical component of ending welfare, together with work and family. Magnet says too many single moms “lacked the soul of the family—the long-term commitment to each other and to the flourishing of your children that makes families the building blocks of society, raising children able to be citizens. It is a particular outlook, a worldview, a sense of duty, striving, and shared life, even more than a marriage certificate or ceremony, that makes a family.”
“The power of policy to change culture is as nothing compared with the power of culture to mold society and government,” Magnet writes, “and a cultural change as dramatic as the one that made the underclass seemingly permanent is key to uplifting it.” His is a mixed bag of policy and practical prescriptions. Among the bright spots, he suggests “group homes for both the babies and the mothers, where the babies can get the moral and cognitive nurture they need, while the young women learn the life skills to be good parents and productive citizens, so they can ultimately take their children to their own self-supporting homes.” Something like this model already exists (more or less) in organizations like Cities of Refuge, Pharaoh’s Daughter, and InterAct that provide short- and long-term housing for women and their children.
In contrast to Magnet’s call to end welfare and the new Poor People’s Campaign to expand it, the U.S. Partnership on Mobility from Poverty provides an approach that is more modest in its initial approach, but ambitiously seeks to “dramatically increase mobility from poverty.” The five strategies it proposes to begin with seeing people in poverty as human, recognizing there are structural and institutional aspects of poverty, and “partnering with nontraditional allies who can help reshape the narrative.”
Other strategies call for government to help in different ways with work, community, education, and family support. The work question raises the slightly unrealistic suggestion that all jobs can and should provide stable hours, high wages, and generous benefits.
The final strategy focuses on data, which is related to research and initiatives that advance evidence-based or evidence-informed policy. “Progress is hampered here,” the authors write, “because there is no standardized model for data sharing across programs or levels of government.” While they advocate for better data across the board, they ultimately suggest starting with willing states, local governments, and communities.
How do we provide sympathy and cooperation to a data point? We get to know the person behind the number. Experience is important; stories are important. It is why DuBois wrote about individual people and places. It is why Hillbilly Elegy did more to highlight the challenges of poor white communities than did Coming Apart. Poverty and advancement are not easy to describe, the spark that immolates one person can provide the fuel another to great heights. Human touch can help make the difference.