Poverty is a killer - but not in the way that you probably think. Since the poverty debate was born in the 1960's alongside President Johnson's "War on Poverty", it has cut down numerous policy solutions before they had legs to stand on. Today, every public policy option set on the table under the poverty banner is doomed to fall victim to the same fate – a slow, painful death. This is not, however, because the policies are necessarily or inherently bad. It is primarily due to the fact that supporters of poverty policy (let's call them "liberals") don't own the term 'poverty' anymore, so they're paying for it every time they use it. Although they were its original benefactors, 'poverty' has since been hijacked – in plain daylight and under their noses – by the very people who argued against them from the beginning (let's call them "conservatives").
In "A Payoff Out of Poverty", a December 19th article in the New York Times, Tina Rosenberg highlights this concept in a concise literary history of the idea of the culture of poverty, from its probable inception in Oscar Lewis's 1959 book, "Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty," to Edward Banfield's 1970 publication "The Unheavenly City," in which he "attacked the key assumption of the War on Poverty – the idea that government can help."
Lewis had used the phrase to describe habits acquired in response to structural factors — the standard left-wing argument that people are poor because of low wages, discrimination and bad schools. But the phrase has essentially become shorthand for the right-wing argument that poverty stems from the limitations of the poor and is largely impervious to outside intervention.
Rosenberg goes on to talk about a "gentle evolution" in the thinking of poverty, in a Mexico-based program called Oportunidades, or 'Opportunities', a conditional cash transfer initiative aimed at improving – what else? – opportunities for the next generation of Mexican youth. It is an interesting idea, and apparently one that some in the US, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 'Opportunity NYC', have begun to try out. But whether or not Oportunidades makes for good policy is beside the point, because it is still – at least according to Rosenberg – all about poverty.
I think everyone can agree that poverty is a bad thing. But the fact that no one can agree on its cause means that talking about poverty – or anti-poverty policies – won't work. Even individuals are ideologically divided between their belief in poverty's systemic causes and the role of personal responsibility in overcoming deprivation. It makes it hard to build public will for anti-poverty policies when people can't even agree with themselves on the issue. Taking that debate public doesn't help. Because even if a particular anti-poverty policy is wildly successful in fighting poverty, however you measure it, the debate won't be over anytime soon.
"If Opportunity NYC goes large scale," Mac Donald [a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute] told me in an interview, "it will further break down the moral obligation to care for one's child and adopt the repertoire of parenting behaviors the middle class takes for granted. It will replace that with the expectation that I'm only going to do it if you pay me." She cites Banfield that living in the present is the central cause of poverty and echoes his skepticism that government can help. "What government cannot do is create personal responsibility and drive in individuals," Mac Donald has written.
Putting initiatives like Opportunity NYC under the poverty banner is not just asking for a fierce debate – it is being untrue to the spirit of the policy. Opportunity NYC intends to do exactly what it says: improve opportunities. This is a policy that ultimately intends to engage people today as an investment in a future, stronger economy and more inclusive society. When a community resident begins to fall too far behind the rest, the whole community is the worse for it.
When considered outside of the influence of poverty language, policy is transformed into something positive to work toward, rather than something negative to escape from. We can start discussing how to move forward – and improving opportunities for future economic success would be a great start.
Perhaps Oportunidades or its sister initiative, Opportunity NYC, really are great programs. But we likely won't ever get to see the ultimate results, at least in the US. If they can't change, poverty will kill them.