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The Politics of Child Poverty
By John Biewen - Correspondent

Part of The Forgotten fourteen Million


The proportion of children growing up in poverty is more than twice as high in the United States as in Germany, France, or Scandinavia. The U.S. government spends billions on anti-poverty programs, but does not provide the kind of comprehensive safety net that's common in Western Europe. Some observers look for the explanation in American culture. Others say the answer can be found in the political culture of Washington, D.C.

IN OCTOBER 1998, Congress passed a $520 billion spending bill. It included $7 billion in emergency relief for farmers, and $9 billion in last-minute additions for the military including $1 billion for missile defense that the Pentagon didn't ask for.

Anti-poverty forces watched with envy.

"We don't really get too many situations where we have money that we don't know what to do with," said Deborah Weinstein of the the Washington D.C.-based Children's Defense Fund, a leading proponent of government help for poor families. The Fund and its allies spent the budget session trying to head off new cuts in social programs.

"Those of us who work on these issues try desperately to be on top of what last-minute thing might be negative. There [are] not any little bonus presents that come as a surprise, usually, in the dark last hours of a budget session."

For decades, groups like the Children's Defense Fund have called for a stronger safety net while pointing across the Atlantic. In Western Europe, income supplements and universal healthcare and day-care programs help keep the child poverty rate under 10%. In the US, 20% of children live in poor families.


"I think the American public had a very heavy tilt against welfare as exemplified by AFDC, and had the feeling that they were subsidizing generations of people who never could arise from the welfare system."

- Bill Frenzel,
Former Republican Congressman



 

But, these days, the notion of expanding the welfare state has few champions in Washington. Republican Bill Frenzel was a congressman from Minnesota throughout the 1970's and '80's; he's now a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. Frenzel thinks most members of Congress, including the Republican majority, would support more federal help for the poor if they thought it would help.

"On the other hand," he says, "I think most conservatives believe that we had a long period in our nation's history, dating perhaps from Lyndon Johnson's first assault on poverty, in which we sprayed a lot of money around and didn't do a lot of good."

Critics blamed the main welfare program, Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), for encouraging teenage pregnancy and 'rewarding dependency.' That perception started with conservatives in the 1970's but spread to the mainstream by the 1990's. President Clinton helped dismantle AFDC by signing the Personal Responsibility Act of 1996.

Food For Thought

But some observers think there's a lesson in the fact that a few anti-poverty programs have survived the 1990's more-or-less intact. Namely, those that provide food assistance to the poor.

"The politics of Food Stamps and other nutrition programs are interesting, because even in an era when programs for poor people have been under attack, food programs have shown a lot of resilience," says Jim Weill, Executive Director of the Food Research and Action Center, an anti-hunger group based in Washington.

In 1996, Congress cut $23 billion over six years from Food Stamps, but later restored some of the funding. When some Republicans pushed to end Food Stamps as an entitlement, their influential colleagues from farm states blocked the move. Farm groups support anti-hunger programs for reasons we'll get to in a moment. First, consider this: while advocates for the poor rely on statistics and moral persuasion, the farm industry has given $82 million to Congressional campaigns since 1994.

"We have, I think, 12 registered lobbyists on staff," says Bryan Little, chief lobbyist for the American Farm Bureau Federation, during a strolling tour of the group's spacious Washington, D.C. headquarters. "They handle just a variety of different issues, ranging from commodity price, export, animal agriculture, not to mention regulatory reform ..."

And federal food assistance programs. Groups like the Farm Bureau have actively supported such programs for decades.

"You know, for the same reason that rural electric co-ops for years and years have sold electric refrigerators and electric stoves," Little explains. "You might think of it as building a market. But in a lot of ways it's boiled down to trying to build a political coalition that can win."

That's a reference to a long-standing marriage of convenience between urban and rural lawmakers. For decades, big-city representatives voted for farm subsidies. In return, rural legislators scratched the backs of their urban colleagues by supporting anti-hunger programs.

Poor Kids Don't Vote

To some in Washington, the example proves that it's all about power politics. That is, poor families only get help when their interests coincide with other, more favored constituencies.

"The simple truth in Washington today is that children do not vote, they do not lobby, they don't contribute to political campaigns, they don't pay for politicians' all-expense-paid trips. The only thing children are good for to politicians is as a photo opportunity during an election," says Charles Lewis, Director of the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington D.C.-based group that investigates the impact of money on congressional behavior.

As proof, Lewis cites Congress's refusal to fund reconstruction of dilapidated schools, as well as its less-than-full funding of Head Start and child immunization programs. Even the relatively popular food assistance programs, farm lobby support notwithstanding, are inadequately funded, Lewis complains. He's convinced none of this reflects the wishes of voters.

"If you said to the average person in this country, 'Do you want there to be 13 million children who are hungry or at risk of being hungry?', everyone would say 'No, we don't want that. We are the United States of America. We don't do that in this country.'"

But there's evidence that this country's more limited anti-poverty efforts do reflect the values of ordinary Americans.

"One of the reasons Americans say that they are concerned about kids, but seem less willing to act on behalf of kids, especially poor and vulnerable kids, is that they're not willing to do something to help the children if it means helping what they see as their shiftless and worthless parents," says Larry Aber, who heads the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University. The center has done extensive surveys on public attitudes towards the poor.

 
"Children do not vote, they do not lobby, they don't contribute to political campaigns. The only thing children are good for to politicians is as a photo opportunity during an election.""

- Charles Lewis

A solid majority of Americans is inclined to help those in need, Aber says. That majority is divided, however. About half is willing to offer assistance with no strings attached. The other half wants to help only those who somehow earn the assistance.

"And it's a more reciprocal relationship," Aber says. "You help them and they in turn help you. And the people who believe in this reciprocal benefit idea also believe that charity should begin close to home, with places you live in and people that you can see."

Washington can give short shrift to the interests of low-income families and get away with it in part because so much of the public is misinformed, says Aber of Columbia. For instance, he points to that widespread stereotype of the poor as shiftless and unemployed.

"But the majority of poor children have parents who do work," he says, "and the issue is how to make work pay."

The Pendulum Swings?

That's increasingly true, Aber points out, now that AFDC is dead and is quickly being replaced by work requirements and entry-level jobs. He believes that as voters grasp that trend, they might be willing to take a fresh look at the social safety net.

Frenzel, the former Republican Congressman, says the 1996 welfare reform law, in doing away with the unpopular AFDC, might have lanced some of the public disgust with anti-poverty programs.

"I think the American public had a very heavy tilt against welfare as exemplified by ... AFDC ... , and had the feeling that they were subsidizing generations of people who never could arise from the welfare system. I think if we were talking about helping children who were in need in working families, there would be a far greater appeal to the American public and ultimately to the public's representatives in Congress and in the White House," Frenzel says.

Few argue for a return to the War On Poverty, 1960's-style. Any new assault on child poverty should involve not just government, but charity and business, too, Aber says. He concedes a public relations campaign is needed first. When asked to name the biggest problem facing the country, only about 5% of Americans name poverty.


The Forgotten Fourteen Million