In 1962, Michael Harrington’s The Other America shocked the national conscience with its portrait of American poverty. In the midst of post–World War II plenty, Harrington wrote, as many as 50 million people—or one in three Americans—lived in a “subculture of misery,” unable to afford the basics of food, shelter, and clothing “necessary for human decency.” “If these people are not starving, they are hungry, and sometimes fat with hunger, for that is what cheap foods do,” he wrote. “They are without adequate housing and education and medical care.”
Harrington’s book was an instant sensation. Devoured nationwide, it was well thumbed in the Kennedy administration and, later, an inspiration for the Johnson White House as well. “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America,” President Lyndon B. Johnson proclaimed in 1964. Buoyed by broad public support for his cause, Johnson and a Democratic Congress enacted the Great Society programs of the 1960s that still make up the backbone of the federal safety net—Medicaid, Medicare, Head Start, and food stamps (now SNAP).
It’s hard to imagine that kind of bold action on poverty today. If anything, the nation has slipped backward.
Earlier this year, Congress let lapse the child tax credit included in last March’s coronavirus relief bill, which sentmonthly payments of up to $300 per child to an estimated 35 million families. In September alone, the credit pulled 3.4 million children over the poverty line, according to Columbia University researchers, and slashed the child poverty rate by more than 25 percent. Calling the credit “the biggest investment in American families and children in a generation,” a group of Democratic senators recently urged its permanent extension as part of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Betterplan (BBB) and warned of dire impacts from its expiration. “Raising taxes on working families is the last thing we should do during a pandemic,” wrote Democratic Senators Michael Bennet, Sherrod Brown, Cory Booker, Raphael Warnock, and Ron Wyden in a letter to Biden.
BBB, however, seems doomed at this point, as does the child tax credit. Both measures face unified hostility from the GOP, plus opposition from Democratic Senator Joe Manchin. Manchin has not only balked at Build Back Better’s hefty price tag ($2 trillion+ in its original formulation), he’s also demanded that the child credit include a work requirement that most congressional Democrats find unacceptable.
But as easy as it is to blame Joe Manchin for the stalling of BBB and the potential death of the child tax credit, the real obstacle is the current politics of poverty—a toxic stew of Americans’ indifference, lack of trust in government, and long-standing biases against the poor. Decades of conservative assaults on means-tested programs like SNAP as well as large and popular entitlement benefits like Medicare have hardened Americans’ views of who should benefit and who is “deserving.”
Despite the inequities exposed by the coronavirus pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the social justice protests of 2020, today’s political environment is deeply hostile to antipoverty efforts. BBB and the child tax credit, unfortunately, are the casualties of this antipathy.
Over the past four decades, conservatives have successfully reinforced and exploited long-standing historical biases against poor Americans. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan popularized the myth of the “welfare queen,” a racist trope designed to invoke white outrage over Black single mothers living lavishly on government benefits even though then—as now—the overwhelming majority of poor Americans are white.
At the same time, conservative writers such as Charles Murray and Lawrence Mead began promoting a starkly punitive approach toward the poor. In 1984, Murray’s Losing Ground blamed federal welfare programs for fostering a “culture of poverty” that encouraged “dependency” and the breakdown of social norms. As the historian Michael Katz chronicled in The Undeserving Poor, Murray’s book bolstered the notion that poverty was the result of individual choices, not systemic barriers to opportunity, and that government programs coddle beneficiaries, causing more harm than good. Despite its many factual and analytical flaws, Losing Ground became the “authoritative rationale for reducing social benefits,” Katz wrote, and laid the groundwork for “personal responsibility” as the fulcrum of 1990s welfare reform.
Mead’s Beyond Entitlement, meanwhile, introduced the idea of work requirements as a condition of getting government help. Building on Murray’s argument of poverty as an individual pathology, Mead argued that federal programs were too “permissive,” “expecting next to nothing from the beneficiaries in return.” Jobs, he argued, were available for anyone who wanted one, and unemployment “has more to do with functioning problems of the jobless themselves than with economic conditions.” The purpose of federal programs, Mead wrote, was to “affirm the norms for functioning on which social order depends,” such as by requiring work.
In 1996, the passage of welfare reform cemented these ideas into law, essentially redefining the “deserving” poor as those who work. The legislation replaced the old welfare entitlement with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which imposed a five-year time limit on benefits as well as a work requirement on recipients. (Its immediate impact was a 58 percent drop in caseloads by 2000.) The 1996 law also enacted work requirements for “able-bodied” SNAP beneficiaries, which led to steep declines in the number of Americans receiving benefits. Acceding to the politics of the time, President Bill Clinton signed welfare reform into law, albeit with bipartisan support and after rejecting earlier, even more punitive versions of the bill. Clinton also managed to parlay public support for working families into historic new investments in child care and an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit. The consequence, however, has been a calcification of public policy and public attitudes toward the poor.
Despite abundant empirical evidence of poverty’s structural causes and the failures of welfare reform, current public opinion still reflects the ascendancy of conservative social policy. While it’s an article of faith among liberals that poverty’s primary causes are structural—that is, the result of racial segregation, substandard schools and transit, low wages, labor market dislocations, and other factors—many Americans still hew to a naive, Horatio Alger view that poverty and wealth are determined largely by individual behavior. (Of course, both culture and choices matter. “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan once wrote. “The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”)
Seventy percent of Americans, for instance, believe they can achieve the “American Dream” if they “work hard and play by the rules,” according to Gallup. Likewise, 61 percent of Americans say “most people who want to get ahead can make it if they’re willing to work hard,” according to the Pew Research Center, while just 36 percent say “hard work and determination are no guarantee of success.”
Many Americans are also resistant to the idea of systemic racism as a root cause of poverty, despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary. In a 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center, just 31 percent of Americans—including only 6 percent of Republicans—said that white people “benefit from advantages in society that Black people do not have.” Likewise, a 2020 Gallup poll found that 67 percent of whites believe “blacks have as good a chance as whites to get any kind of job for which they are qualified.” (Only 30 percent of Black respondents feel the same.)
Work requirements, in the meantime, have become an accepted feature of social programs, which likely explains why Manchin has called for work requirements for the child tax credit. Work requirements for Medicaid was one of the top priorities of President Donald Trump, which Biden is now working to unwind.
Build Back Better pushes against the headwinds of public opinion. It tackles the structural sources of poverty and inequality with investments in education, housing, health care, and social services to correct historical injustices. It proposes unconditional cash transfers through the child tax credit (whether parents are working or not). It argues for major investments in racial justice at a time when Republicans are weaponizing white grievance. Its greatest strengths as legislation are also its most significant political weaknesses.
Moreover, the bill is huge. Low levels of trust in government mean little appetite for sweeping federal efforts. Despite the pandemic’s continued hardships, 52 percent of Americans say government is “doing too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses,” according to Gallup, while 43 percent want the government “to do more to solve the country’s problems.” And while a majority of Americans agree that there is “too much inequality” in the U.S., relatively few call it a “top priority” for the government, according to the Pew Research Center.
Build Back Better, however, is an LBJ-style bill in a Biden era, and the White House insistence on using hyperbolicdescriptors to emphasize the package’s immense scope does not help matters. Not only is it “historic,” it includes “the most transformative investment in children and caregiving in generations,” the “single largest and most comprehensive investment in affordable housing in history,” and the “biggest expansion of affordable health care coverage in a decade.” These phrases, meant to rally liberals, are at odds with public demand (or, rather, lack thereof) for significant government intervention.
The galvanizing impact of Michael Harrington’s seminal book is proof that a nation can be inspired to act. Antipoverty advocates, however, need to reset the stage of public opinion—which browbeating Joe Manchin won’t accomplish.
In the short term, Democrats could swallow current political realities and try to pass BBB in digestible “chunks,” as Biden has suggested. The child credit—if it survives—will need to be less generous. (Democrats should not, however, add a work requirement, which is not only impractical to administer but also reinforces conservative notions of the “deserving” poor that need to be reversed.) In the long term, Democrats need a new strategy for undoing the damage done by conservative attacks on the poor. Americans need to be persuaded again that helping the “other” America helps all Americans and is a collective cause worth pursuing.