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The Facts on Poverty

Review by Elizabeth McLaughlin
Illustration by John Jonik

Poverty Cartoon

It Takes a Nation: A New Agenda for Fighting Poverty, by Rebecca Blank, Princeton University Press 1997

Just the facts, ma'am.

That's just what Rebecca Blank, Professor of Economics at Northwestern University, gives us in It Takes a Nation: A New Agenda for Fighting Poverty. In this 293-page text, Blank provides a concise and comprehensive battery of information for those who struggle for social and economic justice. In a systematic and coolly objective fashion, her book confronts the complex and changing nature of poverty in the United States, laying out the facts that debunk the myths, stereotypes, and rampant rhetoric about poor people and welfare programs in this country. The power of this book lies in its objectivity, and the reader may indulge in the privilege of having the data—not just a leftist polemic—analyzed and synopsized within one easy-to-read volume.

Indeed, the Preface contains the single reference to any emotion on the authors part. Blank states that the impetus for writing this book was the welfare reform debate that started in 1993 within the Clinton Administration:

Listening to the public statements about the poor and about the nature and history of US anti-poverty efforts, I became increasingly angry. Why? Because the information being conveyed was either simply wrong—contradicted by years of program experience and social science research—or myopically incomplete, discussing one aspect of a problem while excluding other equally important facts and concerns.

As a social scientist, Blank had become exceedingly frustrated by those who were promoting simple legislative reforms as a panacea for poverty and who were presenting images of the poor that did more to create stereotypes than to explain them.

Her book is an effort to talk as a social scientist about what really is known about poverty and about policies to alleviate it.

The general themes of It Takes A Nation are as follows: a) Over the past decade Americans have misunderstood the nature of poverty in this country, believing it more ghetto-based, more behavioral, and more unalterable than it actually is. Hence middle-income America's growing perception of the poor as inherently different from themselves. b) Popular ideas about the ability of the poor to escape poverty through work lag behind the economic facts. The reality—that work is a less reliable source of economic support—not only makes life harder for low-income people, it also makes antipoverty efforts harder. The problem is the labor market, not welfare. c) We have misunderstood the effectiveness of public assistance. Unlike the impression held by the majority of Americans, most antipoverty efforts in the US have accomplished exactly what they set out to accomplish: access to medical care through Medicaid, improved nutrition through Food Stamps and other programs, and income transfers. Eliminating these programs would make the poor worse off.

It Takes A Nation is easy to read, even while it packs a great deal of information. Each of the seven chapters contain subsections headed by a succinct summary. And even while she presents the information with the objectivity of a lab scientist, Blank turns popular rhetoric on its back with subheadings like "Absent Fathers: Why Don't We Ever Talk About the Unmarried Men?" and "Get a Job: How Far Out of Poverty Will It Take You?" Graphs from the US Bureau of the Census illustrate much of the data that Blank presents.

Perhaps the only criticism that I have of this book concerns two graphs plotting gender wage disparities and employment opportunities which, because their axes aren't identically labeled, fail to portray the inequity to its full (and most shocking) degree. On the other hand, Blank is careful to teach the reader how to properly interpret a graph that purports to reflect the relationship between government spending and poverty rates by inserting an account of the other changes (in the economy and in family composition) that occur over the time period plotted.

Blank considers herself a pragmatist and a moderate in the welfare debate. She is less concerned with fitting into any preconceived ideological positions than with trying to weigh the evidence and provide a balanced perspective on the problems of poverty and its related policies.

Note, for example, her discussion of various government programs which subsidize earnings. Employer-based subsidies, in which employers receive tax breaks or rebates when they hire from a targeted group of disadvantaged workers, often backfire on ex-convicts or welfare recipients who are refused employment when the employer learns of their background. Such stigma-effects seem not to occur, Blank adds wryly, when it is up to the employer to identify eligible workers and claim subsidies, however. In another chapter, following a discussion of the current policy of behaviorally-linked public assistance programs (which are much more costly than cash assistance programs such as the Negative Income Tax proposed 25 years ago by—surprise—Richard Nixon), Blank concludes in a similarly incorruptible tone: "Ironically, the conservative promise to get government off peoples backs seems to exempt public assistance recipients."

Blank begins by looking at who is poor in America today, and where and how they really live. One by one she disproves widely-accepted statements such as: "Most of the poor are women or children in single-parent families on welfare," "The majority of poor are African American or Latino," and "Poor people today are less willing to work than ever before." This first chapter reveals surprising facts about who receives AFDC, about violence, crime and poverty, child support and teen motherhood, and about work behavior among the poor.

She also opens up a Pandora's Box when she looks at the question of "Why Economic Growth No Longer Reduces Poverty." Confronted in 1988 with what was to her a bewildering puzzle—a climbing poverty rate during a period of economic growth—Blank set about to research poverty in the changing economy: How could poverty rise alongside economic expansion, long one of the most effective and politically attractive antipoverty tools available? The key to the puzzle, Blank concludes, is wages. In sum, the data shows that pay is less and jobs are fewer for less-skilled workers: wage levels for less-skilled male workers have been in decline since the 1970s, while earnings for college-educated men have increased. As for women, they are still earning less than men.

The data shows that jobs are less available and pay less to less-skilled workers: wage levels for less-skilled male workers have been in decline since the 1970s, while earnings for college-educated men have increased. As for women, they are still earning less than men, but are being paid more now than what they used to be. Likewise, non-wage compensation is also in decline: the probability that a job paying less than $7/hour will provide health insurance dropped from 32% in 1979 to 25% in 1993.

This work provides data (such as the fact that only one-fifth of minimum wage-earners live in poor families) which can enable the activist reader with vital tools to help deal with reactionary and racist welfare reformists. She debunks the media-fed notion that there is a quintessential 'welfare queen.' This mistaken notion gives rise to the incorrect idea that what was once called Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC, now called more punitively Temporary Aid to Needy Families, TANF) encouraged poor (read: Black) single women to have more children. In Blank's words:

"Since racial differences are often invoked in the public discussion about nonmarital birthrates, it is worth noting that the research literature indicates that the relationship between benefit levels and fertility behavior is slightly stronger among low-income white women than among African American women. Among black women, there is no persuasive evidence that benefit levels and nonmarital births are linked, but there seems to be a weak positive link among white women."

The final two chapters provide the reader with concrete steps forward and some much-needed vision after the blinding barrage that was the Congressional welfare reform debate. Blank's Three-Tier System of Family Assistance is an intriguingly simple plan that appears to surmount (at least on paper) much of the problems of past and present programs.

Finally, Blank's suggestions are culturally, politically and economically realistic, so that a readerčeven as far left as this onečwalks away musing. Blank, who served as Senior Staff Economist in the Council of Economic Advisors during the Bush administration, was not only a spiritual ally but a smart one as well!

  Elizabeth McLaughlin is in her third year at UNC School of Law. She is also a member of National Lawyers Guild Economics Rights Task Force.  

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