Both Parties in Denial Over Resolving Urban Poverty

In the 1990s, there was a bipartisan consensus on welfare reform. That’s now ancient history.

Two homes sit side-by-side in the Fort Greene neighborhood where the director and artist Spike Lee once lived on February 27, 2014 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. During a recent African-American History Month lecture, Lee used strong language to vent his feelings about gentrification in his former neighborhood and other parts of Brooklyn. Numerous Brooklyn neighborhoods, which were once considered dangerous and underdeveloped, have gone through transformations in recent years resulting in more affluent newcomers displacing long time residents. The 'Do The Right Thing' director accused many newcomers of not respecting neighborhoods history or character.
National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
March 21, 2014, 1 a.m.

Back in the 1990s, Demo­crat Bill Clin­ton and Re­pub­lic­an Jack Kemp each offered his party a soph­ist­ic­ated, em­path­et­ic un­der­stand­ing of the causes and pos­sible cures of en­trenched urb­an poverty. Both the dis­missive com­ments last week from Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Paul Ry­an about the in­ner-city poor and the fierce back­lash against his re­marks show how much each side has re­treated from that broad un­der­stand­ing.

Al­though Clin­ton and Kemp, the former House mem­ber and 1996 GOP vice pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee, didn’t al­ways agree, they joined lead­ing thinkers from each party in un­der­stand­ing that both eco­nom­ic and cul­tur­al obstacles con­trib­uted to last­ing poverty — and that de­mand­ing more per­son­al re­spons­ib­il­ity without provid­ing more op­por­tun­ity was empty pos­tur­ing. “There was a broad agree­ment that a com­pre­hens­ive view re­quired you to look at both di­men­sions,” re­called Will Mar­shall, pres­id­ent of the Pro­gress­ive Policy In­sti­tute, a cent­rist group that helped shape Clin­ton’s think­ing. That in­tel­lec­tu­al con­sensus helped pro­duce the land­mark 1996 wel­fare-re­form bill passed by the GOP Con­gress and signed by Clin­ton.

None of that bal­anced un­der­stand­ing sur­vived last week in Ry­an’s ra­dio in­ter­view with Wil­li­am Ben­nett. Ry­an pinned poverty solely on per­son­al fail­ings (we face a “tailspin of cul­ture in our in­ner cit­ies”) and overly gen­er­ous fed­er­al be­ne­fits (that cre­ated “a poverty trap “¦ [with] in­cent­ives not to work”). The an­swer, he in­sisted, was to “ree­m­phas­ize work” as a con­di­tion of fed­er­al as­sist­ance, just as the 1996 wel­fare-re­form law did.

Nowhere in his ana­lys­is did Ry­an ac­know­ledge how glob­al­iz­a­tion and tech­no­lo­gic­al ad­vances have ob­lit­er­ated eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­it­ies for low-in­come work­ers, es­pe­cially men. His ac­count of wel­fare re­form was equally se­lect­ive. While stress­ing the bill’s work re­quire­ments, Ry­an ig­nored its ex­pan­sion of child care and job train­ing. The work man­date also fol­lowed earli­er Clin­ton meas­ures to “make work pay” for low-wage work­ers — for in­stance, by in­creas­ing fed­er­al tax cred­its. In all those ways, wel­fare re­form up­held the Clin­ton man­tra that so­cial policy should marry “op­por­tun­ity and re­spons­ib­il­ity.”

Ry­an’s com­ments wer­en’t off­hand; he’s made sim­il­ar ar­gu­ments for years. Well be­fore Mitt Rom­ney mused about “the 47 per­cent,” Ry­an had warned about a so­cial “tip­ping point” where “takers” out­num­ber “makers” (his words) — and vote them­selves ever-in­creas­ing be­ne­fits. And Ry­an has ar­gued for spend­ing cuts by in­sist­ing that gov­ern­ment today “lulls able-bod­ied people in­to lives of de­pend­ency.”

Ry­an, as a young ana­lyst, worked with Kemp at the think tank Em­power Amer­ica and counts him as a ment­or. But Ry­an’s com­ments showed how much the GOP has with­drawn from Kemp’s in­clus­ive per­spect­ive. A unique fig­ure as pas­sion­ate about cut­ting taxes as up­lift­ing the needy, Kemp al­ways bridled against sug­ges­tions that the poor are mor­ally de­fi­cient. He be­lieved the way to un­lock the “spark of cre­ativ­ity in all our people” was through pos­it­ive in­cent­ives, like tax breaks, not by with­draw­ing pub­lic be­ne­fits (much less pub­lic scold­ing). “We are great as con­ser­vat­ives at say­ing how bad gov­ern­ment is,” Kemp once told me. “Why can’t gov­ern­ment do the right thing?”

So Ry­an’s com­ments amply jus­ti­fied Mar­shall’s tough con­clu­sion: “He over­sim­pli­fied and dis­tor­ted in a way that’s worthy of cri­ti­cism.” But the in­tens­ity of the back­lash still dis­played omin­ous in­stincts among Demo­crats. Ry­an’s fo­cus on in­ner-city poverty, des­pite the de­fects in his ana­lys­is, re­mains an ad­mir­able at­tempt to reach bey­ond the vir­tu­ally all-white elect­or­al co­ali­tion that Re­pub­lic­ans rely on today. The over­heated Demo­crat­ic ac­cus­a­tions of ra­cism against him will likely dis­cour­age oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans from fol­low­ing. “Oth­ers will say, ‘See what hap­pens: This is a hope­less task,’ ” says long­time GOP strategist Peter Wehner, who worked with Ry­an at Em­power Amer­ica and de­nounces as “ludicrous” sug­ges­tions that he’s ra­cist.

More im­port­ant, just as Ry­an’s re­marks rep­res­en­ted a re­gres­sion from Kemp, the Demo­crat­ic re­ac­tion cap­tures a par­al­lel re­treat from Clin­ton. In de­noun­cing Ry­an, con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats and al­lied lib­er­al thinkers have so stressed the eco­nom­ic bar­ri­ers in high-poverty com­munit­ies that they have “seemed blind,” as Mar­shall says, to le­git­im­ate cul­tur­al obstacles such as fam­ily break­down and dis­con­nec­tion from work.

Clin­ton, by con­trast, al­ways pushed to in­crease pub­lic in­vest­ment in poor neigh­bor­hoods — and to dis­cour­age self-de­struct­ive be­ha­vi­or. (To his cred­it, so does Pres­id­ent Obama.) In his pres­id­ency’s greatest speech, Clin­ton in 1993 stood in the pul­pit where Mar­tin Luth­er King preached his fi­nal ser­mon and warned that the great man “did not live and die” to see young men shoot each oth­er or fath­ers aban­don their chil­dren. Re­flect­ing years later on the largely ex­tem­por­an­eous speech, Clin­ton told me, “I just thought to my­self, ‘I’m go­ing to do all this work, turn the eco­nomy around, and what dif­fer­ence is it go­ing to make if these kids keep killing each oth­er?’ “

Could a white Demo­crat re­peat Clin­ton’s words today without pro­vok­ing a back­lash with­in the party? Could a Re­pub­lic­an in­sist, as Kemp did, that the GOP can’t stand only for “little gov­ern­ment and big pris­ons?” The for­mula of link­ing “op­por­tun­ity and re­spons­ib­il­ity” that Clin­ton and Kemp each cham­pioned in his own man­ner still of­fers the best chance to re­vive hope in com­munit­ies where it has flickered — even if our cal­ci­fy­ing polit­ics dis­cour­age too many in each party from say­ing so.

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