A Seat at the Table

From time to time, it's worth remembering that the nasty political squabbles in Washington are, in a larger perspective, often about real things that affect the lives of all of us. For example, even our neighborhood billionaires fret about the possibility that a few tax loopholes might be narrowed. Actually, the rich always have a pretty substantial agenda of public policies, issues, and contracts at stake in D.C. and they wield outsized influence on any phase or the process that matters to them. Not to put too fine a point on it, campaigns are increasingly expensive and they are paid for big contributors. No need to worry about whether they get a fair hearing!

Although they often don't seem to understand or pursue their own best interests, the middle class, too, looms large in the minds of our elected officials. After all, when it comes to actually voting they are the ones with the big numbers. Generally politicians on both sides of the aisle portray their agendas as focused on helping the middle class.

For Americans at the bottom of the economic ladder -- for example, those who rely on food stamps to feed their families -- government action or inaction can make all the difference in the world. But so far in this century they have not been central to the priorities of any major political grouping. This is true despite the fact that the sluggish recovery from the financial crisis of 2008-2009 has made life that much more difficult for those on the margins of our economy.

In the past, hard times have tended to bring out the best in us. A widely shared belief was that the right thing to do is not to ignore the less fortunate but to help them out. Unfortunately that has not been the case during this downturn. Just last week House Republicans, for example, stripped the food stamp program (currently part of the Supplemental Assistance Program or SNAP) from the farm bill, where it had been routinely included for decades. And, the one major initiative -- the Affordable Care Act -- that could mean a real improvement in the lives of the poor (and others) is under increasingly intense partisan assault. Even the news coverage on these issues stresses the political stakes for the president and the Congressional Republicans, scarcely mentioning its impact on people who today lack health insurance.

And, if we needed reminder of what happens when large concentrations of poverty are tolerated over time, the late great city of Detroit's fight for "the right to go bankrupt" is a warning that things could get much worse.

In the 1960s, we tiptoed up to the edge on the basic question of what scale of government activity was needed to save, not just neighborhoods, but a whole generation of the poor. We worried then about how we would pay for what was needed. The Vietnam War seemed the major obstacle. Now, we are stopped by a lack of political will, underpinned by a widely shared suspicion that government can do little worthwhile in these areas. Today, anti-poverty programs have become one of the mine fields of modern politics.

During the 1980s, a conservative coalition in Washington set out to alter the balance in America's federal system. Overall most of their goals have been realized. They envisioned a federal government that collected fewer taxes, regulated fewer markets and other business activities, and spent less on everything other than national defense. If government was to be an active force, then those activities, in their prescription, should be consigned to local and state governments. In turn, these jurisdictions should not rely on Washington for either leadership or dollars. Especially for our older, most racially segregated cities, the implications of this version of federalism were profound. As political subdivisions of states, cities must compete against the demands for public investments that were formerly beneficiaries of federal state partnerships. Federal participation in water and sewer construction, mass transit, below market housing construction, and rent subsidies has been disappearing. Direct federal aid to cities in the form of revenue sharing and grants for education, community development, and housing has been substantially reduced or eliminated altogether.

The measure of the conservative's success can be found in the absence of contemporary debates about poverty and urban problems. Thirty, even twenty, years ago, the debate on appropriate policies assumed a central role for the federal government. The Kerner Commission, established after the riots in the 1960s for example, recommended the establishment of a uniform national welfare standard at least as high as the poverty level and the creation of two million jobs, half of them in the public sector. Such talk of "an urban Marshall Plan," of large, sustained investments by the federal government has disappeared from public discourse. Today, there is not even a consensus that the problems of poverty deserve a place on the national agenda.

The great need today is to define and give life to a progressive philosophy about how to sharply reduce poverty in America. The answer inevitably depends on determining government's place in maintaining economic growth, protecting individual liberties, promoting community safety, and expanding opportunity. In other words, it depends on all of us.