Monday, May 07, 2007

WaPo Offers Negative View of Edwards' Voucher Plan

A Washington Post story about John Edwards' plan to end poverty within 30 years contains a decidedly negative view of the part of his platform that involves a controversial "cultural integration" plan to give low-income families housing vouchers to move into better neighborhoods. I feel that it's too easy to dismiss such a plan when I believe that it is key to ending poverty as we know it. We must not only expand housing vouchers, but our leaders must continously create the will to stick with the program until it can take roots - something the federal government clearly has not done in the past.

Alec MacGillis writes:

If there is a personal imprint on Edwards's plan, it is his argument for reducing racial and economic segregation -- that, as he put it in one speech, "if we truly believe that we are all equal, then we should live together, too." To achieve this, Edwards proposes doing away with public housing projects and replacing them with 1 million rental vouchers, to disperse the poor into better neighborhoods and suburbs, closer to good schools and jobs.

The idea sounds bold, but it faces a deflating reality: A major federal experiment conducted for more than a decade has found that dispersing poor families with vouchers does not improve earnings or school performance, leaving some economists puzzled that Edwards would make such dispersal a centerpiece of his anti-poverty program. Edwards said he was unaware of the experiment.

"The Edwards proposal is a good idea, but I don't think it's likely to accomplish the primary aim he intends," said Jeffrey Kling, a Brookings Institution economist who has studied the experiment.

Missing from Edwards's approach, some thinkers on the subject say, is the same crucial component lacking in past proposals: a way of framing the problem that can inspire political will to help a segment of society that tends not to vote.

While I'm not sure myself which Brookings study the author of this WaPo article is referring [and I pay pretty close attention], I have previously noted that Bruce Katz, who is a Director and Senior Fellow at the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy, has been in favor of the housing voucher program. He has said that, while it's not perfect, it is worthwhile. He goes as far as to say that the housing voucher program needs to be expanded. What it - and HUD - need is an administrative overhaul, a point with which John Edwards has said he agrees.

The 2007 housing voucher platform forwarded by the Bush administration got a failing grade at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities because it would, in effect, would underfund roughly 70 percent of the state and local housing agencies that administer the program. The failure is due to flaws in the voucher funding formula that the Bush Administration has used in recent years.

We know that John Edwards would not stand for such flawed formulas and underfunded results.

With new economic and political realities, we need a 21st century version of community development, and that, in my opinion, should include cultural integration. This view crosses ideological and party lines. I have seen conservative columnist David Brooks write in favor of this type of community cultural integration.

Better opportunities for communities and all people who live in them have been discussed by John Edwards at conferences at the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC Chapel Hill. At these conferences, there's been a rethinking about community development models and how they can play out successfully for the benefit of the most people. Many community development specialists feel that the federal government should concentrate on outcomes more than processes. They believe that communities need to better deliver housing services to people with the development of new and improved strategies.

When it comes to caring about ending poverty and raising all boats, we can be the leaders we have waited for by better understanding the way community development has worked in the past. There has been, in the past, a working cooperation and collaboration between
- the private sector
- the public sector, and
- not-for-profit organizations

Since the dawn of "the new world order" and globalization, a need has been presented for new and creative strategy-making with the intent to alleviate poverty.

The state of community economic development is currently at a crossroads.

There are fault lines in the old strategies for successful economic development. Old myths and stereotypical beliefs about those Americans living in poverty are being revealed as less and less true by the day. Because of political changes, community developers are seeing economic, physical and social conditions in the community that have led them to realize that there is near-absolute failure where there once was success. There has been little creativity and acknowlegement of these changes with a Republican majority and a President who has made it their hyperfocused business to "drown the bathtub" of social funding à la Grover Norquist and Jack Abramoff.

The new community development revitalization strategies required, in order to improve the oportunities for the poor, must encompass knowledge about the different kinds of poverty that exist in each respective community. Poverty is not necessarily just the poverty of income or assets. There are dimensions to our communities that also reflect a poverty of opportunity, a poverty of potential (as we see in human and physical capital deficiencies in poorer communities), and especially the poverty of powerlessness. Communities must be made to see the power they can possess in order to change their own circumstances.

In order for the vision of a leader like John Edwards to effect a real change in opportunity for the poorer workers in our society, he has an uphill political battle to generate the will to make a social and political change and to obtain the tools for sustained success.

Edwards has made the argument that when it comes to the desire to see all Americans have an opportunity for success, the will of the people is already there. In a speech he gave at the University of Buffalo at Amherst last fall, he made these points:

Points about Ending Poverty:

* Ending poverty is a great moral cause.

* Millions of people wake up each morning worrying about feeding and clothing their children. They wake up each day worrying about having a decent place to live. They worry about affording healthcare.

* We're better than this.

* America cares about this issue.

* What we choose to do about 37 million people who live in poverty says something about who we are.

* The world will see America's true and decent character when they see us acting to eliminate poverty here and around the world. It sets a great example.

* After Hurricane Katrina, the government was a mess in its response. America was not a mess. Americans volunteered and made huge contributions to help the victims.

* A huge hunger exists in America to feel good about our country, to engage in a cause that is bigger than ourselves.

* The United States has not launched a serious, comprehensive effort to reduce poverty since the "War on Poverty" in the mid-1960s. [although there have been actions taken under the Clinton Administration, such as welfare reform, an increase in the minimum wage and the expansion of earned income tax credits.]

* The will of the American people is not what is missing. National leadership has been the missing element; it has been a the hurdle we can't seem to get over when comes to finding comprehensive ways to end poverty and the will to see that it gets done.

Margy Waller, a policy adviser in the Clinton administration, is relying on old stereotypes that have, in my opinion, been largely responsible for the continued failure of any meaningful poverty alleviation program to succeed. In yesterday's WaPo article, Waller said that
...because so many Americans believe poverty results from bad personal decisions [my emphasis], it is better to address it in broader terms of improving social cohesion, reducing inequality and strengthening the economy, instead of focusing on "poverty."

Granted, voters are not all policy wonks, but that doesn't mean that political leaders shouldn't take the honest initiative to tell the public that ending poverty will take real sacrifice. Americans have been spoon-fed so many political white lies that they are sick, tired, and more than ready for someone who will take the lead and create the will to stick with something they believe will work not only for the poor, but for themselves and their communities.

MacGillis writes in his article that poverty experts say the Edwards proposals are vulnerable to some of the same criticisms leveled against past Democratic programs. Margery Waller is quoted, once again, by MacGillis to have said the following:
We don't need new policy. We have plenty of policy," said Waller, now part of a Washington think tank called Inclusion. "It's just that no one's helping us move it."

From what I've read - and I read extensively - I'd argue that not only do we need action on new policy, but as I commented above, we need 21st century strategies. It would be completely unfair to criticize Edwards' plan to end poverty in 30 years by throwing rotten tomatoes at poverty programs of the 60s. We're living in a new world - a world that is nearly 50 years removed from that period of American history! Edwards plans do not reflect realities of the 70s, 80s, or even the 90s. These times are dead and gone. The realities of today - here and now - are the realities of no other time in America.

With so much ineffective - or just plain bad federal policy in the past, being poor has become a full-time job in and of itself. Rod Watson and Jonathan Epstein of the Buffalo News have written an extensive and impressive continued series called The High Cost of Being Poor which has led to much legislative discussion and potential action on behalf of the working poor. To give you an example of how costs mysteriously add up when you're poor, Watson and Epstein have quoted information from a Brookings study, using national data and information collected from 12 metropolitan areas, concluding that low-income families generally pay more than upper-income families for the same consumer item or service, largely because they rely on alternative providers like check-cashers, pawnshops and rent-to-own stores.

Any think-tanker or politician who chooses to hide from America the real faces of those who live and work in poverty are simply looking for ways to keep the curtain pulled over the realities that American people will need to understand before the will can be created to make a meaningful change. When the curtain of poverty was blown off the huddled masses in New Orleans, it was the winds of Katrina that forced America to finally see them and to think about them. What did Americans do? They responded with generosity and genuine caring. Katrina was a natural disaster...but if we framed poverty as an avoidable disaster in America, I believe Americans would respond with the same level of generosity and care - especially if they understood how their own lives and communities would benefit and how they could volunteer to make those positive changes.

What happened to respect for leaders of great vision? Why does it matter where the visionary leader lives or who cuts his or her hair? How is it that we have been taken for granted, by the media and our political leaders, as such shallow and false people? It isn't who we are. We're better.

I want a political leader who will remove the curtain from all Americans who live in poverty in every hidden place and I want the think tankers and consultants to stop trying to keep them hidden. I know that nothing of any meaningful or sustained consequence will come until we have more honesty in journalism and in governmental leadership.

Because the federal government has, in recent years, significantly retrenched from its prior position of dominance in funding and directing community development activities (basically abdicating its responsibility to communities across America), the brunt of responsibility has been laid upon local governments who spend a large chunk of their tax base just making their respective Medicare matches. This has left the caring and action to not-for-profit organizations, who, while having the best of intentions, have kept their communities in a state of continued persistent poverty because they lack the ability to craft and articulate a meaningful vision of economic change for their communities and they lack the capacity to formulate strategies associated with that necessary change. They also lack the capital necessary to make it happen.

The will to alleviate poverty and the success of economic community development will not only rely on Preidential candidates and academics. It will take all of us, the all-too-few citizens who do pay close attention, to understand what must be done and to learn how to talk to our neighbors in our own communities about alleviating poverty. Conferences held in our own communities may be helpful. So will letters to your newspapers' editors. Teaching ourselves to talk about alleviating poverty can make the difference between politically alienating those who misunderstand poverty and succeeding to brighten the corners of our own cities, towns, and villages with the light of knowledge and inspiration. Most Americans in the middle class are already feeling less secure and we should be appealing to their hope and their shared sense of fairness in order to build a grassroots foundation from the new social architecture aimed toward ending poverty through effective twenty-first century community development which includes cultural integration and housing vouchers. With the committed collaboration of the private and public sectors, along with not-for-profits who have worked hard and haven't gotten far because government has abdicated their responsibility to hold up their end of the bargain, perhaps we can finally help people to help themselves.

In the case of Alec MacGillis at the Washington Post, I wish it was not so easy to brush aside a great idea such as John Edwards' proposed housing vouchers (combined with fair and appropriate funding formulas). I regret to see these kinds of unbalanced "brush-offs" in the professional media because I, a simple citizen, realize that it's part of the reason why politicians have gotten a free pass on giving Poverty lip service. False-framers are being elected and doing nothing.....and blaming the hard-working poor for their own poverty. MacGillis says it himself:
For years, the national poverty debate has run on a seemingly endless loop.
John Edwards aims to end that vicious cycle.

I'm with him.

Alec MacGillis writes that it's an unavoidable fact that "no program has helped lift up the poor in recent years as much as a strong economy." The bullish Wall Street economy we see today is one very wealthy Wall Street away from the lives of the working poor. We know quite well that the working poor are not the beneficiaries of the recent feeding frenzy and tax cuts. Princeton economist Paul Krugman has recently written favorably about the solidity of Edwards' ideas in the real economic world.

Since the 1990s were an era of peace, prosperity and favorable demographics (the baby boomers were still in the work force, not collecting Social Security and Medicare), it should have been a good time to put the federal budget in the black. And under Mr. Rubin, the huge deficits of the Reagan-Bush years were transformed into an impressive surplus.

But the realities of American politics ensured that it was all for naught. The second President Bush quickly squandered the surplus on tax cuts that heavily favored the wealthy, then plunged the budget deep into deficit by cutting taxes on dividends and capital gains even as he took the country into a disastrous war. And you can even argue that Mr. Rubin’s surplus was a bad thing, because it greased the rails for Mr. Bush’s irresponsibility.

- Paul Krugman

The mainstream media, sponsored in large part by corporations, may not appreciate the kind of economic realism that a return of the People's trust in government and a return to social justice requires. Those who boast about Wall Street's recent successes don't really know with certainty what will happen tomorrow and those Americans who are not experiencing or sharing in the Wall Street feeding frenzy while working hard and getting nowhere are losing trust in a government who'd oversee such class inequities. What John Edwards is trying to do is to replace the illusions about an economy that rewards and maximizes the profits of only the richest and makes us look at the possibility of what might actually be achievable for all of us, rich or poor - - understanding the limitations that there are.

John Edwards aims to end the illusion in favor of political realities, ensuring fairness of opportunity in the future for all Americans...bridging the dangerous chasm between rich and poor.

I'm with him.

Note: See Jamison Foser's Media Matters Summary