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Thursday, November 17, 2005
Public Scrutiny of Poverty

David Shipler, a minor celebrity at Dartmouth College, provokingly wrote: "[W]hat government fails to do is usually not defined as news. But it should be, for neglect is a form of policy, too. When government ignores a problem, the problem festers and usually fades into the shadows of coverage until a Hurricane Katrina ravages New Orleans or a riot tears through South-Central Los Angeles.... Katrina, then, has offered an opportunity for the press to rethink its inattention to a national disgrace. No problem gets cured unless it is first turned out into the sunlight."

Race and poverty hadn't always been so jolting the nation, Shipler argued, because there was a time when newspapers regularly featured stories on such issues. What had been different in the past was government action; when the government did anything involving the issue of poverty--from Lyndon Johnson's the Great Society to the 1996 welfare reform--the media centers covered the effects of those government policies. However, as the government did less work on those areas, or, as the government's services to those areas became routinized over time, media coverage dropped. Shipler goes on to suggest that the administration's mismanagement of the response the Hurricane Katrina re-centered the question of poverty and race in the public consciousness, and, for a time, put the issue back into the news.

Nevertheless, just because Americans were paying attention to racial inequality for the first time since the 1990s, doesn't mean that everyone was suprised. In fact, Shipler forwards the proposition that those living and working among the impoverished were certainly not surprised.
The deep suspicions of authority among impoverished African Americans — the distrust of police, politicians, and even rescue workers — would not have puzzled anyone who has worked on racial issues, and it should not have amazed a literate public educated by solid reporting on racial tensions and injustices. Surely it was no revelation to those who work in nonprofit antipoverty agencies that many of the poor lived in neighborhoods most vulnerable to flooding but could not evacuate because they had no car, no place to go, no credit card for a motel, or — even if they owned vehicles — too little money for a tank of gas.

Unfortunately, people who staff antipoverty programs hardly ever get interviewed, although they’re primary sources of nonideological information about the grassroots problems of the poor. Many of these workers, once poor themselves, transcend the liberal-conservative political dispute about who’s at fault and see clearly the intersecting factors of personal failure and societal failure that create the ecology of poverty.

If reporters spent time at job-training centers, malnutrition clinics, legal-aid offices, housing agencies, and the like, they would get more powerful stories in a week than they could write in a month — not about the programs themselves, not the puff pieces that program directors who compete for funding would prefer, but rather about the problems the programs aim to solve. Good coverage would also connect the dots by demonstrating the influence of one problem on another and the links among problems and policies.

I take Shipler's point and think it's a good one: the media does not focus enough on policy neglect as much as it focuses on policy failure. In doing so, corporate media allows the government to define the scope of the national conversation. More importantly, however, in an administration such as this, its failures do not, most likely, outnumber its negligence. This analysis, as helpful as it was, neverthless obscures the more important questions: (1) Is Katrina an issue of racial poverty? and (2) Has the media changed its portrayal of black Americans and politics?

What benefits do Americans accrue by viewing Katrina as an issue of race? The negative consequences, in my mind, outweigh the positive. The benefits of the racial poverty angle, for people like Shipler, are that it: (a) demonstrates the public neglect of the intersection of race and poverty, (b) decreases the likelihood that blacks will vote for Republican presidential and congressional candidates, (c) offers reasons why the federal and state governments are still necessary, and (d) proposes further modifications to the United States defense and infrastructure planning. The negatives, for people like me, are that it (a) underscores black Americans as being uniquely in need of governmental intervention, (b) threatens to break the progressive coalition by galvanizing people around either the issue of class or race, (c) under-emphasizes the role that properly functioning governmental agencies can have, and (d) will be seen as an excuse to defund other governmental initiatives.

In a way, I sympathize with Shipler's desired project of re-centering issue areas where the federal government can make a difference through involvement. However, as he himself noted, tackling racial poverty cannot occur within left-right discourses about limited versus expansive conceptions of the federal government. This national discussion needs to transcend those categoies to get to the heart of the matter. But can the nation sublate a left-right discourse without furthering harmful racialized discourses and ideologies?

More important issue than trascending left-right binaries is this: in acknowledging that there are those persons in our country who have a truly terrible material existence when compared the relative affluence of the United States, to what extent will these persons be otherized as passive, foreign, racial, or incapable? Shipler calls for more public scrutiny and ackwoledgement of poverty and racial inequality; scrutiny and acknowledgement require an act of perceiving of one subject onto another. It is the dynamics of the public writ large perceiving the poor that worry me: how will those who need help be portrayed? If we are to have more public scrutiny on poverty will that scrutiny come with the usual historical baggage of the removal of agency or the impugning of blame onto the receiver of charity?

Let me put it more concretely. Policy discussions on the issue of poverty, racial poverty, and governmental assistance tend to revolve around blacks Americans. The very fact that the idea of a "culture of poverty" still tends to surface in discussions about the black poor, or, that poverty becomes an issue of laziness and non-assimilation in the case of urban black and Hispanic (male) youth should reveal much about American thinking on the subject. It is the difference of those black and Hispanic male youth from us that is the reason for their poverty. These differences appear either as helplessness or pathologized, vagrant behavior.

On the one hand, some policy analysts and politicians argue that absent intervention and involvement the poor--whether they are black, Hispanic, or female--would be helpless. Ironically, in a move made to "save" the poor from their circumstances, the poor are stripped of their agency and become politically relevant to the extent to which their behavior and lives are shaped by the governmental intervention. Many conservatives, particularly black conservatives, react very negatively to this. On the other hand, other policy analysts and politicians argue that poverty is merely a function of effort, qualifications, and worthiness. On the lazy or the weak are truly poor; opportunities abound for any who are intelligent enough to seize one. However, we know that a not insignificant portion of the material conditions of a person's life are determined by historical and sociological factors beyond their control. The family and social position into which one was born is primarily a function of randomness: you could have been born into some other family with a different social position. Liberals react negatively to the creation of super-agency and the absolution of responsibility and duties of some empowered social classes.

There should be public awareness of the issues of iniquity, scorn, and stigma that arise from a person's social position in all of its complex axes of race, class, gender, religion, sexuality, country of origin, familial resources, etc. The justification of the duties that some who are in certain social positions owe to others requires a political conversation in which all persons distribute social and personal resources to increase everyone's ability for political and social action and inclusion rather than on images of pathologized, reified, big-"O" Others.