Politics and the Poor
Alec MacGillis has a good piece in the American Prospect on the difficulty politicians have talking about poverty. It reminds me of a conversation I had recently with a smart social policy advocate on this topic, and have been meaning to write up. But before I get into it, I'll add that this is a bit of a delicate topic, and ask that people take me at my word when I say I'm not criticizing anyone, but instead pointing out a structural imbalance.
He argued that it was little surprise that the public option had come to dominate the health-care debate. The rest of the bill's primary selling points are about helping the poor, and that doesn't sell in American politics, not even among the left.
Look at the large, member-driven organizations, he argued. Groups such as MoveOn.org or True Majority. They're all in favor of efforts to address poverty, but it's not the core item on the agenda, and that's because their constituencies fundamentally aren't poor. Because of that, they're a lot more aggressive on policies that appeal to their membership's political beliefs — the public option being a good example — than policies that directly help the poor, such as whether the subsidies reach 300 percent or 400 percent of poverty, or whether Medicaid expands to 133 percent or 150 percent of the poverty line.
Conversely, the groups that spend a lot of time on poverty — think the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, or Families USA — aren't member-driven. They're advocacy organizations, they tend to rely on foundation grants or endowments, and they tend to play a bit more of an inside Washington game, because they don't have funding sources or a membership structure that lends itself to grass-roots pressure. Foundations, after all, give a lot of money for research, but not that much money for attack ads. And people living just above the poverty line don't tend to send in $100 when you tell them subsidies in a bill are about to be cut, even though those subsidies will hurt them a lot more than the public option will help most of MoveOn.org's members.
Put another way, the basic problem is that poor people, by virtue of being poor, can't donate a lot of money to popularize their concerns, and are fairly marginalized from the political process in general. The result isn't that those concerns are entirely ignored in Congress, as many of these institutions are very effective, and many legislators take this stuff very seriously. I agree with everything that Bob Greenstein, CBPP's director, says here, for instance. But it is that there's little infrastructure for pushing them into the national conversation.
The effects of this can be a bit weird: The health-care bill, for instance, spends pretty much all of its money on the poor, and its structure is primarily designed to increase coverage among low-income Americans. But pollsters have advised Democrats not to talk about that, and so they don't. Instead, they talk about how insurers are evil, or the public option is good, because those issues are more resonant both among the broader electorate and the liberal base. When people like, well, me, criticize Obama for neglecting the moral case for health-care reform, it's not because he forgot about it.
And because it's Ted Kennedy day around here, it's also worth saying that Kennedy was one of the few Democrats who could speak about this stuff effectively, as you can read in this speech.
Photo credit: By Jae C. Hong — Associated Press
August 26, 2009; 6:06 PM ET
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