Response to Mr Blair 1

This is one of those posts that started out to be a comment on someone else’s blog until I decided that a) it was too long for a comment, and b) the issue has enough resonance to deserve wider exposure.

A brand-new blog (born March 17, barely a month ago) called Asset Almanac and authored by one Benjamin Blair linked to Monday’s post on infant mortality along with posts on several other blogs he’d never heard of that also featured pieces on the NYT article. Mr Blair’s point in this particular post, gently made, was that we were all having “knee-jerk responses” that aren’t “constructive” because they “impl[y] we ought to return to the good old days pre-welfare reform.”

Before I do answer him, however, I want to acquaint you with Mr Blair so we know who we’re dealing with and can put his remarks in some kind of context.

He describes himself as a “do-gooder…always working for fragile nonprofits” whose “passion” is for something called “asset development”. Asset development, it turns out, is a relatively new anti-poverty strategy built around, apparently, teaching poor people to save money.

The logic is very simple (important ideas are often simple): 401k account-holders save more when there’s a company match; perhaps poor people (few of whom have access to any 401k account, much less a matched one) would save more, and have a better chance of clawing their way out of poverty, if their difficult efforts to save for the future were also matched (…picture penguins marching through the polar winter — that metaphor may suggest the discipline and sacrifice necessary to save on an extremely low income). Michael Sherraden at the Center for Social Development at Washington University had that epiphany (well, not the goofy penguin part — I take full responsibility for that) and he wrote about it in his 1991 book, Assets for the Poor: A New American Welfare Policy. He argued that asset development, as opposed to (or in addition to) income support, is what can give poor people a chance at financial security and real self-sufficiency.

The beauty of the matched savings account is that the match can be used as not just an incentive to save but also a source of leverage about what to save for. Matched savings accounts, dubbed individual development accounts (IDAs), allow low-income people who complete a required financial education program to use their savings and the matching funds (which are often a generous two or three times the amount saved by the individual, up to a certain limit) to invest in a productive asset such as a first home, higher education, or the capitalization of a micro-business; in other words, the kind of investment that has been shown to move many people permanently up the economic ladder, and though certainly not risk-free investments (which we are being reminded of with the current subprime mortgage crisis), they have proven to be more practical and effective than most other investment options for the poor.

As regular readers have probably already guessed, warning flags starting going off all over the place, if not red then at least blazing orange. The idiotic concept that the poor are poor because they don’t manage their money well enough or save enough has been a right-wing talking-point for a generation, largely employed to frame the blame for poverty on the poor themselves and then sidetrack the discussion into a thoroughly useless cul-de-sac that neatly avoids the only real long-term solution whether we like it or not: income redistribution, an idea that drives our home-made oligarchs into fits of pique and panic.

Mr Blair claims to be a lefty, and maybe he is, but if so his attachment to a conservative-born, conservative-think-tank-developed red herring is puzzling, especially when we note that he works in North Adams, Mass, a Berkshire hill-town that I know well (I spent some time working for MassFairShare, a now defunct community organizing group with a chapter operating out of the nearby “city” of Pittsfield). North Adams – in fact the whole area – is depressed, a clutch of old mill towns that have been poor practically since they were founded but skated by for a hundred years until the 60’s when the mills all moved south where wages were, if you can believe it, even lower. Mr Blair, if he’s working in an NGO as an asset developer, must of necessity be running into poor folks every day. He’s probably working with them.

So how to explain his apparent cluelessness? Can he be unaware that the last big company to move out of the area (in the 80’s), GE, left because it didn’t want to have to pay to clean up the cancer-causing PCB’s it dumped into the Housatonic River for 30 years, leaving behind it acres of pensions dishonored because Jack “The Axe” Welch didn’t feel like paying them? Can he really be blind to the devastation, the havoc wreaked on the Berkshires when mills that were actually profitable moved south for cheaper labor, lower taxes, and even higher profits (because they weren’t all bankrupt, Mr Blair)?

I guess so.

I take it that Mr Blair isn’t terribly interested in how the area got to be the way it now is. He wants to jump past all that dead history and try to deal with the situation as it exists today. Understandable if short-sighted. The problem with that desire is that the history he’d rather skip explains pretty clearly why his approach won’t – can’t – work, not even if you include the rather novel and even intriguing idea of matching funds.

So now, with that as background, let’s look at the graf in question.

Personally, while I agree that statistics like this are tragic, and that increases in infant mortality in southern states are likely tied to the greater willingness of red states to cut safety net services, I don’t think it’s constructive to have a knee-jerk response that implies we ought to return to the good old days pre-welfare reform. We do need to invest more in services for the poor, but we need to focus on asset-building strategies such as job skills, financial education, parenting education, transportation, daycare and access to post-secondary education, not just traditional welfare, which has never been very successful at moving people out of poverty.

There are so many false assumptions in that simple graf that one hardly knows where to begin. Before I do, I want to address Mr Blair directly.

Mr Blair, I want you to understand before you read what follows that I believe your heart is in the right place, and that your overall goals are laudable. I appreciate them, and I respect your willingness to pay the price of your beliefs. But I’ve seen too many people like you come and go – come with high hopes for change and leave, disillusioned, for greener pastures when they get tired of paying that price (and unlike us, they don’t have to pay it – it’s a choice) – to waste words or time being kind and easing into this discussion slowly and gently so as not to hurt your feelings. I don’t intend to savage you or anything like it but I am going to be blunt. Prepare.

the good old days pre-welfare reform

What days would those be, exactly? Welfare, thanks to the counter-productive means-testing demanded by conservative enemies of the Great Society anti-poverty programs proposed by Lyndon Johnson in the 60’s, was never more than a “safety net” to keep people from starving. It may have intended to “move people out of poverty” but hostile conservatives made sure it did quite the opposite. Every rider added to appropriations bills by conservative forces – Red and Blue – cut any disbursement liberals added that was aimed at giving the poor a chance to be un-poor, disbursements like the one that used to allow a woman with children to keep her benefits when she went back to school. That provision was eliminated by conservative senators led by Mississippi’s Jamie Eastland. Not cut, eliminated. Eliminated and replaced by a provision that stopped all her benefits – housing, day-care, fuel oil allowance, even food stamps – dollar for dollar the day she started school.

That’s the template, that’s the normal pattern. Why do you think we’re ragging on conservatives about the infant mortality rate? Because they have brought us to the point where the govt won’t even help keep poor kids alive, never mind all that other shit you’d like to do. They won’t even use enough of the swollen Federal budget – the pittance it would take – to provide enough health care to pregnant women who can’t afford it to save their babies from debilitating fetal developments due to poor or malnutrition and poor pre-natal care. WIC has been called “the best-spent dollar in the Federal budget”, yet it has been cut every single year since the Republicans took over Congress and was on life support even when the Democrats were in charge because the Blue Dogs wanted welfare “reform”.

Which is more than a misnomer, it’s a hypocritical, Orwellian lie. Welfare reform isn’t and never was about helping people get out of poverty. Look at what it actually did and you’ll see: it was all about lowering the amount of money going to social programs by getting people off the rolls and off the dole. It was about punishment – work or starve – and it didn’t matter that there weren’t any goddamn jobs or that the few there were paid minimum wage. The eligibility regs were tightened to a chokehold and demands increased to a fare-thee-well without, in most cases, any accompanying support services: day-care, tuition aid, job training, etc etc etc. All the stuff you’re talking about has already been proposed and already been turned down, rejected, sent packing, by conservative forces antagonistic to the whole concept of helping the poor.

They have brought us back to Square One: trying to get a mere safety net into place to minimize the worst of the Social Darwinism that passes for public policy these days. That was never the liberal goal. We wanted – and wrote into the original Great Society legislation – everything you’re talking about and more – only to see conservatives undermine it, stripping away all but the most minimum protections from starvation, homelessness, and catastrophic illness in the intervening 25 years, finally ending in the Bush years by taking away many of those minimal protections as well.

So please don’t lecture me about “knee-jerk responses”. They’re not “knee-jerk”. They’re responses that come from knowing – knowing – where we are, how we got here, and what to expect in the future.

Whether you acknowledge it or not, Mr Blair, there is a Class War going on, initiated, promoted, and pursued by conservatives on behalf of the investor class. They hold all the cards, all the power, and they’re not shy about playing them. They have spent $$$hundreds of millions$$$ in the last 30 years convincing people like you that if the poor just saved more, worked more, quit being so goddamn lazy, they wouldn’t be poor any more, ignoring the inconvenient facts that wages have been stagnant while inflation has gone right on rising, tens of millions of jobs have been moved overseas, education budgets have been cut to the bone from pre-school on up to please the low-taxers, and the burden of social costs has been shifted from the rich to the middle-class and the working-class poor.

Do you want to know what we’re up against while you’re fantasizing about getting conservatives to provide matching funds for savings accounts and showing underpaid workers how to “discipline” themselves (more on that later)?

This is from today’s WaPo, an article about Bush’s make-believe “order” to the VA and the Pentagon to “come up with a joint process for establishing the level of disability of injured service members, and to implement other recommendations from a presidential task force”. In it, Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson explains his mandate.

Nicholson’s task force, which included officials from eight government agencies, was established March 6 by Bush in response to reports of problems in the long-term care given to injured troops and veterans. The task force looked at ways to fix the system “without new laws or new money,” Nicholson said.

(emphasis added)

You CANNOT “fix the system” without additional funds. Period. We’re talking about health care. It costs $$$. If Nicholson’s orders are to do it without money, that means his orders are NOT TO DO IT.

IOW, it’s a PR stunt: “Look like you’re doing something but don’t do anything. We like it the way it is – cheap.” And this is health care for troops the Bush Administration sent into combat.

Do you know who Jim Nicholson is, Mr Blair? Well, I’ll tell you. He’s an ex-RNC political dirty tricks operative famous for setting up a phony Command Center in Iraq to fool reporters into thinking they were getting Pentagon statements about the invasion when what they were being handed were totally inaccurate (you know: lies) press releases written by Karl Rove’s propaganda unit headed by Dan Bartlett – another RNC political DT op.

Why, you may rightfully ask, would that experience qualify him to run the huge VA system? No military history, no medical background? Doesn’t make much sense, does it?

It does when you realize that his value to Bush and the other Pub conservatives is that he will resist any pressure to spend money on wounded veterans. The only reason he’s there is to be a good little pol-op and write nonsensical, false press releases trumpeting how much they’re doing while making sure they do NOTHING. That’s what pol-ops are good for. That’s all they’re good for. And yet there he is, in charge of the VA.

Does it begin to dawn on you, Mr Blair, that maybe this deck is stacked?

(to be cont’d)

(Part 2)


4 Responses

  1. […] « Response to Mr Blair 1 […]

  2. Ouch, this is the first time I’ve been lumped together with the Heritage Foundation and other conservative think tankers. I understand why you would take issue with my use of the phrases “knee-jerk response” and “good old days pre-welfare reform.” Poorly chosen words, not the kind that would get me a warm welcome to the blogosphere! I agree that the deck is stacked against the poor, and yes, we need massive new investment in supporting the poor in many areas besides just matched savings accounts and financial education. But I do think you’re too quick to write off asset-building strategies altogether; they need to be a much bigger part of a larger strategy. Hundreds of grassroots anti-poverty agencies (not conservative think tankers, but people who are committed to anti-poverty work) have been testing out individual development accounts for the past 5-10 years (with one of their best features being that they allow poor people to build assets without losing other benefits — a principle which I agree should be expanded much more widely). And though IDAs have only received a pittance of support, many of the roughly 25,000 poor people who have participated have benefitted. Many have found that they could save something, even if a very modest amount, and that some amount of financial education is helpful. With the matching funds their own savings, and other assistance, they’ve been able to buy a first home (with support to assure they get a non-predatory loan) or get additional post-secondary education or invest in a small business. IDAs are certainly not for everyone. Some people just can’t possibly squeeze out any savings, so other strategies are needed to assist them. But IDAs are a promising tool for some families. Michael Sherraden and the Center for Social Development have done a lot of good research in this area.

    I’d be interested to read your take on the new national anti-poverty strategy report announced yesterday by the progressive Center for American Progress. I haven’t had the chance to read it yet, but I noticed in the executive summary that asset-building seems to be one of the four guiding principles. Are they mostly offering up more conservative think tank red herrings, or is there anything encouraging there in your opinion?

    By the way, I did appreciate reading your recent posts. They’ve given me a lot to think about.

  3. As I tried to explain at the beginning of this, I addressed it to you for obvious reasons but I mainly used your post as an excuse for a general take-down of attitudes expressed by a lot of people, not just you. If, as I said, I hadn’t thought there was a reason for a public response, I would have written a comment and let it go at that.

    You’re right, the phrases were poorly chosen. For one thing, they’re code words on the Right. Conservatives often attack any criticism of welfare reform by using them. That was one of the flags that went up.

    I did not say I was “writing off” asset development. I haven’t written it off – yet – but I admit to being skeptical, both of its potential efficacy and – the main thrust of my response – its political viability. There’s probably a reason it receives a “pittance of support” that has a lot more to do with conservative antagonism to any anti-poverty strategy than it does to the idea’s inherent worth or lack of same. As I said, the idea of the IDA and matching funds is intriguing, and as one element of an overall strategy that includes many disparate elements designed for differing circumstances and levels of need, it makes more sense than it does as a stand-alone.

    IAC, the point I’ve been trying to make is one I’ve been on for years: all poverty programs – all of them – are under attack by conservative forces who don’t have a problem using slimy tricks like phony “studies”, invented statistics, programmatic deceit, and manipulative gaming of clients to keep them from taking part in programs the radcons want to kill. Just last year we saw the Bush Administration deliberately make it confusing for seniors to find out about, much less sign up for, the prescription drug plan they passed primarily to benefit Big Pharma. Right now, today, they continue to fight any attempt to allow the govt to negotiate prices with the drug companies.

    IOW, until they’re taken down and public attitudes toward poverty get changed from the Social Darwinism conservatives have been selling us for 30 years to something a little more sane and humane, any real plan for poverty relief, never mind getting people out of it, is doomed to failure.

    And unless the corporatocracy’s plan to turn America into a Third World country by shifting all the goodies to the top and all the risks and responsibilities to the bottom is stopped, jobs will continue to vanish or provide unlivable wages, and poverty will continue to increase. (I’ll be going into that in the final post.) To push anti-poverty plans now is, frankly, putting the cart before the horse, as my mother would say, and we know how well that works.

    I ran across the CAP study a while back (last week?) and have it marked for future study but haven’t had time to read it yet, either. Maybe this weekend. I intended to write about it, and will, and when I do, I hope you’ll respond or add your thoughts in some way.

    As I said, given that the idea of making the poor save money came out of conservative think tanks 20 years ago as a way of both distracting from the oligarchy’s income-redistribution scheme and as a back door attack on the poor that helped set up the reigning meme that our poverty is our own fault, I’m skeptical about the whole thing. Nevertheless, I will admit that at this point my understanding of what you’re after and how it fits with reality is altogether superficial, and I will try to keep an open mind about it until I’m sure it’s either genuine or a trap.

  4. […] (Part 1, Part 2) […]

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