Persistent Poverty: What Does Politics Have to Do With It?
Scholars in the US have made real progress in advancing our understanding of the causes of poverty, especially persistent poverty, in recent years. We also have much better evidence about what policies work most effectively to lift individuals and families out of poverty. For example, we know investing in early childhood education results in good outcomes, and that supporting working families improves work effort, stabilizes marriages, and improves children’s performance in schools and overall well-being. We have moved beyond ideological debates. In the 1970s and 80s poverty research was mired down in worn-out politicized debates about whether the poor were victims of larger political and economic factors shaping the structure of opportunity or were handicapped by their own "culture" or irresponsible behavior. But work in the 1990s began to recognize the complex, but understandable, ways in which structure and behavior are interrelated. Scholars recognized that communities without a middle class and the institutions a middle class supports do not have the capacity to provide poor families’ opportunities for upward mobility. In places with concentrated poverty and no middle class, there is little trust and little investment in the common good and social order of the neighborhood. Low income families do not, as sociologist Peter Townshend puts it, have "adequate resources to participate in the accepted ways of society," in the mainstream. Many accept the status quo, others leave for opportunity elsewhere, and few become mobilized to bring about change – in development economist Hirschman's words, choosing "loyalty" and "exit" over "voice." This lack of participation, low trust and failure to invest in community wide institutions allows corrupt politics to emerge in poor inner cities and rural communities, and then that bad politics in turn becomes an obstacle to change and development. Those in charge see schools and local government as sources of patronage jobs and political power rather than as public institutions to serve the common good. Politics and political forces become part of the problem instead of part of the solution. Only investment and organizing can turn the poor community around and provide real opportunity for low income residents to succeed. This program was developed as a part of the University Dialog Program.