Poverty and Power

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Poverty and Power: The Political Representation of Poor Americans, by Douglas R. Imig. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996. 159 pp $55.00 ISBN 0803225008

Critics of the 1980s have found much to denounce about Reagan’s agenda. In many of their minds, the most controversial of his actions was his reversal of “the dominant trend in social-welfare spending of the previous fifty years not only by retrenching the federal commitment to social welfare but also by working to delegitimate the notion of welfare as an effective response to poverty.” (xii) Writing in 1996, Douglas Imig takes the Reagan administration to task in Poverty and Power, which examines the rise of antipoverty public interest groups during the 1980s.

Imig begins his tale with the quotation, “During the 1980s in America, the gap between the rich and the poor grew. Today the poor “live in neighborhood of more concentrated poverty, and include a higher proportion of single mothers and their children” than ever before.”(1) He provides a number of statistics demonstrating that most who live in poverty are white and have children. Those who advocate for this population tend to fall into two camps—one is the “hunger lobby” that is active in national politics, the other is group that endorses “ “ outsider” tactics and direct political action.” (3)

These groups became especially active during the Reagan administration, which “combined budget cuts with a belligerent rhetorical position toward welfare recipients—both providing a target for activists for the poor and undermining the presumption engrained in postwar welfare programs that welfare was generally a worthy cause.” (14) Imig acknowledges that Reagan inherited “an array of domestic social-welfare problems: high unemployment, disappearance of assembly jobs to foreign manufacturers, loss of service-economy jobs held by native-born Americans to immigrants, and a bulge in the labor supply created by the baby-boom generation.” (15) That said, Imig does not seem to agree with Reagan’s strategy in combating these ills: “scal[ing] back the income-redistribution policies of the previous half century while maintaining assistance to the “truly needy[;]” attempt[ing] to rejuvenate the economy through a massive overhaul of the tax code[;] and bolstering American security by continuing the military programs during the Carter presidency and adding a variety of new programs.” (16) These three transformations, coupled with an economic recession, burdened the lower classes, leading to “the quickest and most regressive redistributions of wealth in U.S. history.” (18)

After castigating Reagan for his poverty policies, Imig takes a brief look at the history of poverty advocacy in the United States. For decades, poverty was largely a local problem, handled by regional organizations. However, “national conceptions of the causes of poverty increasingly shifted from local labor conditions to national economic problems.” (26) This new reality, coupled with increased professionalization of relief agencies and the “recurrent efforts by political reformer to empower poor communities” led to “a turning point in American attitudes toward poverty and welfare” during the Great Depression. (27) He then traces the role of government in combating poverty from the Depression to the Johnson era.

Returning to the 1980s, a mass of antipoverty public-interest groups developed in response to the Reagan agenda. While anti-poverty groups have been around for decades, Reagan seemed to arouse the furore of many who campaigned for the poor. However, Imig wonders just how effective their efforts have been. He looks at six groups to make this evaluation, using “interviews conducted with current and former organizational directors, officers, and staff members between 1989 and 1994. [He also] contacted representations for each group several times over this five-year period in order to augment and reassess their continuing activities since 1980.” (46) To augment his understanding, he also looked at the financial information of each group—“these income figures allow for comparative analysis of advocates’ funding and expenditures.” (47)

The six groups under study are Bread for the World, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), Center on Social Welfare Policy and Law (CSWPL), Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), Community Nutrition Institute (CNI), and the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). Three of the organizations (CSWPL, FRAC, CNI) were federally funded groups hurt by Reagan’s budget cuts. They either redefined their focus and organizational structure pr worked within the parameters of the new federal grant. The remaining private groups also experienced changes. Bread for the World redefined its focus to combat international hunger, while CDF and CBPP were able to grow in their organizational structure and political action. However, not all groups prospered financially, and sought other means to champion the rights of the poor.

Not all antipoverty groups experienced a financial windfall in the 1980s. But a second form of “institutional access “ presented itself—“increased protest in the form of direct action, civil disobedience, street protest, and riots.” (65) One of the most famous was the Reaganville tent city in Lafayette Park in front of the White House. Others engaged at fasts near Reagan’s ranch or conducted sit-ins on congressional grounds. All of this has sparked the interest of the media, which has covered the protests with great interest. Indeed, between 1980 and 1989, the New York Times published twenty-three articles each month on domestic poverty. (100) Among the American population, awareness of poverty also increased: “over 70 percent of respondents to a 1989 Gallup poll indicated they were more sympathetic to poor people than they had been five years earlier.” (102) That said, “evidence suggests that there was an inverse relation between protests and changes in discretionary program spending during the 1980s (r=-0.31). This negative correlation suggests that, rather than diminish with discretionary program cuts, levels of protest politics rose as federal programs were cut.” (106)

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