ZACH KOMES, CHAPTER POLICY DIRECTOR
This year’s 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty has led to a national discussion on how to revamp public policy to better help the most vulnerable. Faced with a messaging crisis, a rise in suburban poverty, and polls showing wide concern among the American public about rising wealth inequality, Republicans have appeared ready this year to propose overhauls of education, tax, and regulatory systems in the name of boosting social mobility.
These recent developments have shown that the Right may be starting to again recognize that individual effort is not only what determines economic success—institutional forces, whether public or private, play an important role in determining one’s position on the economic ladder. And as such, government should be involved to help make sure that all have a chance at moving up.
But Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI)’s recent comments have shown that the Party has not strayed away from their confining ideology—one that that blames worker initiative for systemic social problems:
“We have got this tailspin of culture in our inner cities, in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of hard work. So there’s a cultural problem that has to be dealt with.”
The racial undertones of this statement are clear, similar to the “welfare queen” narrative during the Reagan era and the “47%” comments of the 2012 election. As many commentators have rightly pointed out, the phrase “inner city” is often used as coded language to shield racist comments by “color-blind” whites about the black urban poor. The “cultural values” of poor rural Southern white men, who also suffer from widespread joblessness, are not questioned the same way as this different “class” of poor. The allegation that African Americans lack a strong work ethic consistent with national “American” values of personal responsibility has existed long before the Jim Crow era.
Just as striking is that Ryan’s comments ignore the many structural economic challenges that have been dramatically changing American cities for decades. While having only 7% of the total U.S. workforce, low-income urban neighborhoods have nearly one-quarter of American poverty. And while Ryan is right that there have often been generations of families without stable and well-paying jobs, the reasons for this massive structural unemployment are more complex than a lack of hard work by the poor. Larger political and economic shifts continue to affect employment in U.S. cities.
The Decline of Manufacturing
Globalization, technical progress, and offshoring since the 1970s have dramatically transformed once-thriving cities across the country. Cities are still copying with the effects of deindustrialization and the shift to a posindustrial economy, which left many communities without widespread sources of family-supporting jobs.
Between 1980 and 2009, the United States lost 7.1 million manufacturing jobs, more than 61% of which were originally in the metropolitan areas. In my hometown of Milwaukee, just to the north of Ryan’s District, the loss of anchor corporations like American Motors, A.O. Smith, Schlitz, and Pabst led to massive unemployment and declines in incomes, affecting the African American community the hardest. There has not been a resurgence of employment to replace the many jobs lost; only 44.7% of working-age men of color in Milwaukee were employed in 2010. This story is far too common in many urban communities across the country.
Suburbanization of Employment and Transit Barriers
With urban areas in distress, many who had the means to leave chose to. Those that couldn’t were force to stay. “White flight” to suburban areas intensified after jobs disappeared. Many Rust Belt cities saw their populations decline by nearly half, extracting tax revenue, home values, human capital, and further destabilizing these urban economies. Housing discrimination and financial barriers prevented many black families from moving out of poor neighborhoods.
With less wealth and growth in cities, many industries also left to the suburbs. Today, 72 percent of employment is located more than five miles from central urban business districts, creating “spatial mismatches” with many urban workers disconnected from suburban labor markets. With 10% of urban households without access to a vehicle, public transit is a necessity to connecting residents to these new jobs outside city limits. But current transit services are often inadequate, with only 17.3% of suburban jobs accessible by public transit in less than 90 minutes. Continued service cuts and fare increases, which have affected 79% of transit agencies since 2011, have severely hurt efforts to help urban workers find family-supporting employment.
Workforce Readiness and Education Challenges
As globalization increases competition between U.S. and international workers, pressure has been put on public education and workforce development systems to maintain American comparative advantage. These new challenges have not been met with the amount of investment needed to fit the need. In 2013, 39% of large American firms report having trouble filling positions because of not having enough qualified candidates.
Longtime unequal education funding disparities between poor urban and wealthy suburban areas, perpetuated by funding mechanisms based on local property taxes, continue to exist. 31% of all American students are heavily concentrated in 1.5% of urban schools which receive only 89% of the average national per pupil revenue. Higher class sizes, more frequent teacher turnover rates, fewer support services, less college readiness programs, and less funding for extracurricular activities are far too common in urban public schools. Because many poor breadwinners have multiple part-time jobs, there also tends to be less parental involvement in city schools, shown to have a strong correlation to student achievement.
The Great Recession hit urban education systems hard. Two-thirds of state governments are providing less per-student funding for K-12 education in 2014 than 2008. Federal funding for the Title I program, which targets high-poverty school districts, was cut by 12% in 2011. While increased funding is not the only solution to help our urban education systems perform against global rivals, public disinvestment from our schools is leaving urban workers behind.
Stop Blaming Economic Forces on the Poor
This is just a glimpse of the many systemic challenges facing American cities. Ryan’s position that blames the marginalized for their own poverty ignores far too many factors that have been preventing renewed prosperity in cities for decades.
If Republicans want to propose real solutions to modernize the War on Poverty, the first step will be to change their tendency to criticize, instead of empower, the vulnerable. Blaming individuals for systemic challenges is not only misguided, but removes policymakers’ responsibility to act. Democrats, too, need to evaluate federal programs with an open-mind and to start working with the other side of the aisle to help create family-supporting jobs in our neighborhoods. Solutions, not finger-pointing, are what is needed to help alleviate poverty in our challenged cities. Americans deserve better.
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