Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The most important article you may read this year

Kevin Drum directs us, in this post, to an article in this month's Atlantic magazine by Hannah Rosin. It is about the correlation between providing housing vouchers to poor people in inner cities to move to the suburbs, and the rise in crime in those suburbs.

The points raised in the article contain the same elements of where and how the Great Society programs failed. Somehow, there is this belief on the part of some liberals, and now some conservatives, that if we just give money or vouchers to poor people, the cultural habits that keep people in poverty will be overcome, and more important, the poor folks' lack of access to decent paying jobs, due to their lack of job skills and job training, will also somehow be overcome. In the 1990s, and in this decade, vouchers were the Republican Party and Clintonized Democratic Party version of the 1960s Great Society programs. Rosin's article helps us understand the limits of the housing voucher policy, and its unintended effect of increasing crime in suburban settings.

I wish people would read Michael Harrington's critique of the Great Society programs, a critique shared by the greatest sociologist of the past forty years, Christopher Jencks. It is a critique, interestingly enough, understood by Bobby Kennedy in 1968 when he infamously told Gene McCarthy in a California debate that moving black folks from Watts to Orange County was not an effective answer to allieviate the black folks' poverty. While even Bobby's friends and supporters were of the view that Bobby was race-baiting Gene McCarthy, I have long viewed that attack on Bobby's statement as unfair. Instead, Bobby was talking in the context of his Bedford-Stuyvesant proposed program, which was a government initiative to directly help people in blighted areas with jobs and job training, and refurbishing buildings, and housing. Think of it as gentrification of both the people in the community and the buildings they live in and would work in. That sort of initiative is what Harrington and Jencks consistently talked about as a more effective way to overcome most problems associated with economic poverty.

The attack on Harrington, Jencks and even Bobby Kennedy is that such an activist governmental program is "socialistic," as if saying the word "socialistic" constitutes a well-reasoned argument. What people should take away from Rosin's article is not the failure of the housing voucher program, but its limits. In reading the article, it is important to note the success stories from the housing voucher program, too. The optimal understanding one should take away from Rosin's article is that there are ways to overcome poverty beyond giving people money or vouchers. One of those ways is through job creation, job training and refurbishing homes and buildings in blighted areas.

In corporate broadcast media, the attack on the Great Society programs almost always came from the Right. "You can't throw money at problems." "Socialism always fails." and so on. The critique from Harrington and Jencks (and also the other greatest sociologist, William Julius Wilson) never got past the New York Review of Books or the New York Times Book Review page.

Further reading on these subjects that would be salutary to improving our public policy discourse would include:

1. Christopher Jencks, "Rethinking Social Policy: Race, Poverty & The Underclass" (Harvard 1992);

2. William Julis Wilson, "When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor" (Vintage, 1997);

3. And for a liberal, left defense of the Great Society programs, see "America's Hidden Success" by John Schwarz (WW Norton, 1987, rev. ed.).

For Harrington's critique of the Great Society programs, one may wish to review "Toward a Democratic Left: A Radical Program for a New Majority" (Pelican, 1969) and Jencks' book he wrote with other sociologists, "Inequality: A Reassement of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America" (Harper & Row, 1973, paperback edition) (Caveat: In the beginning of "Inequality," the authors tell us I am wrong, too, in believing in the solutions I propose. However, as the book goes on, and particularly at the end of the book, they make clear these policy prescriptions are important policies to pursue. It is somewhat contradictory, more a paradox, but they are trying to tell us to watch for cultural issues while tending to the economic ones.).

As we move forward toward what I hope is a revitalization of New Deal values, we may once again begin to address nation rebuilding, not merely in poor innercity neighborhoods, but pursuing redevelopment throughout our nation, including states emptied out of people from argicultural mechanization, and rebuilding and redesigning our infrastructure of roads, bridges, mass transit, etc. With these initiatives, we will see great econmic improvement, a cultural rebirth of a patriotism that is genuine and ennobling, and we will again become a good example the rest of the world will wish to emulate in more peaceful and humane ways.

Wow. I just finished what I thought would be a low note on a high note instead...Nice!



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