The current economic downturn has forced a generation of Americans, many for the first time, to make hard choices and revise their expectations about the taken-for-granted prosperity of this nation. This recession has already caused many people, and we anticipate the numbers to grow substantially, to lose jobs and become unable to provide for their families’ basic needs. Many of these people considered themselves middle class or held union jobs with good wages and benefits and thought they were immune to economic adversity. Although both the media and politicians have focused much attention of the effects of the recession on “ordinary Americans” this examination rarely sheds light on the impact on the poor.
Portrayals focused exclusively on the plight of ordinary Americans serve to erase both the persistence of poverty and the extraordinary affect of this recession on the over 37 million people with incomes below the official poverty line. Yet economists have predicted that this recession will have the harshest consequences for the poor, pushing many into “deep” poverty, destitution and homelessness. The stories of these individuals’ plight remain mostly unheard.
As political scientist Murray Edelman has perceptively argued, during any time of “crisis” the government and other authorities will produce powerful narratives about villains and victims that serve to absolve responsibility and distort the causes of the problem. In the emerging social narrative about the crisis we are now facing we see this kind of simplification, and particularly, a real failure to recognize the conditions of not temporary but pervasive vulnerability that the poorest American experience. This allows politicians to speak of potential disaster and strategies for recovery without questioning the underlying conditions of inequality.
The history of poverty policy in the United States, as Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello eloquently recounts, is influenced by a strong impulse to make the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor. The most recent wave of this dogma arouse as part of the growth of neoliberalism that began in the late 1970s. It reared its head in a variety of forms, including efforts by policy analysts to distinguish between the needy and the “truly disadvantaged” and as an attack on affirmative action programs. This impulse to sort the deserving/undeserving poor was ultimately the guiding principle behind the Clinton administration’s efforts to “end welfare as we know it.”
After the passage of the 1996 welfare reforms many poverty scholars lamented the dire consequences of eliminating the social safety net. We are now just beginning to understand how brutal a society without this safety net can be. As reported in a recent New York Times article, despite the increased joblessness and hard times, many states, even in the most badly stricken areas, are not providing more cash assistance to families. This holding-back of the welfare rolls is likely to be driven by the incentive structure built into welfare reform; states bear the cost of increasing their benefits and numbers and recipients are confronted with an obstacles course of requirements. Nothing about the system is geared to responding to urgent need or providing for the most vulnerable.
A timely example of how these incentives play out in times of budget cuts in seen in the proposed regulation changes for emergency housing in Massachusetts. This week it was publicized, that pending implementation on April 1, Massachusetts homeless shelters will deny services to persons who fail to satisfy a 30 hour per week employment requirement and save 30 percent of their income. This is one of eight regulatory modifications that will separate the deserving from the undeserving poor—by putting the “undeserving” out on the street. What is truly remarkable about these new regulations is their obliviousness to the realities of the current economic situation. Moreover, they have the effect of applying the same forms of regulatory deterrence imposed on clients of transitional assistance to those who seek temporary shelter. Even in more progressive political times, and as part of efforts to end homelessness by 2010, a more equitable distribution of resources looks like more punitive sanctions against the poor.
It is time to turn the tide of neoliberalism. Instead of asking why the poor don’t work, we need to question the economic conditions, pre-existing the recession, that limit the possibilities of many Americans to lead productive lives.