Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 23, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

POVERTY....David Shipler had an interesting op-ed in the New York Times yesterday about our disjointed approach to fighting poverty in America. The problem, he says, is that we have dozens of individual programs that fight bits and pieces of the "ecology of poverty," but we don't put them together:

One remedy, tried by community action centers created by the War on Poverty, put a variety of specialists under one roof. Their effectiveness unsettled politicians. "Mayors didn't like them because they were doing something that was very good," recalls Frances Fox Piven, a professor of political science and sociology at City University of New York. "They were badgering municipal agencies to provide services." The money for the centers eventually dried up.

Decades later we are still testing this idea, now called "one-stop shopping," as if it were some dubious proposition. Since last July in five California school districts, applications for subsidized lunches have been used as applications for Medicaid as well. What has to be proven for the rest of the state to follow?

I wonder if there's any kind of consensus about this? Poverty has pretty much fallen off the radar screen of American liberalism these days, and it's easy to see why. Like peace in the Middle East, it seems like we've been trying everything we can think of for decades and the problem just stubbornly refuses to go away. Under those circumstances, it's hard not to simply decide that the problem is intractable and give up.

The problem, of course, is that it seems almost impossible to make progress in the face of so many competing interest groups. Liberals don't like anything that addresses cultural issues ("blaming the victim"), conservatives don't like anything that increases spending ("throwing money at the problem"), and in many cases an entrenched bureaucracy simply doesn't want to bother trying anything new. After all, there are inevitably winners and losers whenever you try something new.

No answers here, of course. But I'll say one little bitsy thing: Shipler mentions in passing one of my favorite hobbyhorses, the lead content of paint and pipes in slum housing. There's considerable evidence that lead exposure causes significant IQ drops in children, and it's simply a crime that we haven't yet exterminated even this rather straightforward problem. It's a project that a real compassionate conservative could take on wholeheartedly and that no liberal worth the name would oppose. It is, if you'll pardon the pun, a no-brainer.

UPDATE: Jeanne d'Arc adds a personal perspective.

Kevin Drum 9:26 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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