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Massachusetts Sparring with Poverty

By Thomas Geoghegan

"The State and the Poor," edited by Samuel H. Beer and Richard E. Barringer. Winthrop Publishers, 329 pp.

EVEN IN ?? liberal Massachusetts ??? on poverty have turned into a few spasmodic "limited incursions." which deplete state budgets and estrange white suburbs. Money is running out. Last month the Governor slashed welfare rolls, cutting deeply into general relief funds and tightening eligibility requirements. Recipients could hold no more than $50 worth of personal property, according to Sargent, and they would now have to register with the state monthly. Since state welfare costs had risen more than 25 per cent for the third year in a row, the Governor was trying to protect the rest of his budget. Aid for Dependent Children alone rose 425 per cent to $274 million for 1970. The Nixon Administration has promised more money to the states, but many here wonder what good $5 billion of shared revenue will do when the President has already impounded a sum three times that, due to the cities by law. He has held back an estimated $12 to $18 billion which Congress authorized for sundry urban purposes in 1971. This act cost Boston at least $15 million of the $50 million Mayor White says is needed to hold the property tax rate at its current $156.80. For most state and local officials, federal revenue will come with bitter irony- if it comes at all.

Sterile fiscal realities cast a chill light on the proposals raised by poverty scholars at Harvard and M. I. T. in a volume of essays entitled The State and the Poor. Sponsored by the Kennedy Institute of Politics, this Faculty Study Group argued, with one eye on the 1970 state elections, that the state ought to develop a comprehensive antipoverty program. The book has now appeared in paperback, and the general reader can try to guess what audience the fourteen contributing authors had in mind- social scientists, bureaucrats, or just politicos running for office. It will be hard to tell. When committees write books, coherent argument usually suffers. Only the two editors, Samuel H. Beer and Richard E. Barringer, actually make the argument for a comprehensive antipoverty program.

It is striking to behold these Harvard social scientists, after really huge operations like the War on Poverty, now trying to save so small a piece of the American political universe as the state of Massachusetts. They have turned to chaster palliatives and can even regard state government- that species of political authority so maligned by liberals- as now the most sensible administrative unit to coordinate an attack on poverty. Perhaps only long residency in a progressive state like Massachusetts could foster such an illusion about states in general. At least for Massachusetts, their analysis often makes excellent good sense, even though they can produce only an administrative policy and not a general political strategy for fighting poverty.

THE GREAT bombshell of The State and the Poor, at least to its authors, is the new suburban character of poverty. Working back to 1960 census data, they deny that the central cities are tending to become the exclusive home of the poor. Instead, the poor are rapidly dispersing into the population as a whole, following new job opportunities into the suburbs- seeking more space, better housing, better schools. Poverty here has almost nothing to do with race or central cities. State programs aimed exclusively for blacks will not only alienate the white suburbs but miss 95 per cent of the real poor in Massachusetts.

Such statistics, the authors feel, will somehow persuade suburban homeowners to pay more taxes for education in the ghettos. In the epilogue, Richard Barringer writes that poverty can and should be defined with special relevance to the lives of those who have access to the political system and can provide a lasting base of support- the middle class. But the "special relevance" sought by Barringer could backfire on the poverty program. Far from making welfare more acceptable to suburban whites, the new migration could make it just more repugnant. The political issue would become not poverty but the policy question posed by David Birch: to what extent will state government encourage or discourage the dispersal of the poor through policies on housing, transportation, and education? State and local government might act to keep the poor from crossing local boundaries with a much different set of laws than liberal welfare measures.

The authors rightly reject the "urban strategy" for fighting poverty or any exclusionary strategy which sacrifices broad political support. But they assume a bit too quickly that the groups which will benefit from the anti-poverty program would have enough common concerns to form a majority coalition. It certainly has not happened yet. One must find not only common concerns but the political solutions which will satisfy all concerned. Indeed, though they focus on Massachusetts, the authors have not a word on the political culture or the historic antagonisms in the state.

It would be a tribute to white paranoia, of course, if racial backlash alone could sabotage a poverty program in Massachusetts that would aid almost entirely whites. Many popular conceptions have mistaken the pluralism of poverty- the poor are the elderly and disabled citizens, more often farmers than Boston teenagers, and some are working poor who support themselves on low and undependable earnings. To help any one category of the poor requires several agencies and Beer wisely suggests that the state divide poverty programs into areas, considering the different mixes of the poor in each. But since the plan of the book devotes the chapters to various state programs, Beer's colleagues do not take up the concept of regional poverty or integrate their separate exercises for one area.

The authors seem to believe that fundamental economic changes occur right in the office of the Governor, provided he has a large enough planning staff and an open mind. In fact, these changes presume a redistribution of political power, just as poverty warriors once argued back in the '60's before the adventures of Community Action Programs and the disasters of the OEO led Dr. Moynihan to write Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding. The great effort to reform local power structures did prove, as Moynihan wrote, that the federal government cannot be expected to agitate against local political authority. But it did not refute the need for community action or the contribution of participation to the competence of the poor. Alone among the contributors John Meyer insists in his essay on housing that the poor must have the power to operate on their environment. Income subsidies will not be enough- public policy must develop the collective skills of tenants, perhaps by loaning technicians and architects.

But even if community action is in bad odor, shrewd advocates of an antipoverty program will at least recognize the role of grass roots support. They will see the state government as more than the Governor and his planners. The fiscal restraints and constitutional restrictions on the poverty program reinforce the political clout of the state legislature. Suburban and rural legislators must be given an early vested interest in the design of the antipoverty effort. If not, their sniping and buffeting could make it an easy political target. As it is, they will have to answer for the state functions which invade the fiefdoms of local politics, structures which for years have taken poverty for granted. Their support will depend on the political coalitions pieced together in their own constituencies.

THE MOST powerful argument for the program is not political morality but administrative common sense. An explicit institutionalized antipoverty program. Beer writes, would provide direction over the $1 billion the state spends annually in poverty-related activities. A poverty budget would clarify whatever priorities are forced on the state: for the moment, the first priority would be a 50 per cent increase in the money incomes of the poor, and the second a massive increase in the housing effort up to $22 million over the next ten years. An increase of roughly $150 million in the poverty budget, however, must compete with the new expensive campaign the state will undertake to fight environmental pollution. The poverty scholars, it should be known, scoff at the new fashion for ecology.

Ann Friedlander estimates that both environment and local aid will absorb $200 million more in state fiscal resources. At the same time, the government is facing a revenue gap of $125 million. In ???? with these ??? ??? ??? ?? antipoverty program would mean raising an additional $500 million from a combination of sales, income, and miscellaneous taxes. A nasty and frantic round of "tax politics" would have to precede any high-minded reign of "poverty politics."

If the federal government were to take over the welfare system, as the authors recommend, Massachusetts could reduce? its antipoverty outlays by 40 per cent. But Nixon's current Far??? Assistance Plan would set only a $1600 minimum, much lower than current AFDC levels in the state. Nor are the current AFDC levels near the mark of $5000 which the Bureau of Labor Statistics claims Massachusetts should provide for a family of four (a sum, incidentally, far above the Orshanky poverty line used by the Social Security Administration). Most discouraging of all, only 22 per cent of the families in Massachusetts now eligible for AFDC have discovered the program. That proportion will rise dramatically as welfare levels increase. Even full employment will make little dent on the rolls. Of the 50,000 adults, mostly female on AFDC, only 10,000 might be suitable for employment. When the system finally collapses under its own weight, one must hope that the federal government will be forced to intervene.

THEN, TOO, the state must worry about 200,000 families still living in inadequate housing. Bernard Friedan and John Meyer claim that the housing program has that "special relevance" sought so earnestly for the middle class. Both the poor and nonpoor suffer from short supply and face a continuous market- continuous in the sense that it has been unresponsive to the needs of almost everyone. Real improvement for the poor, the liberals can say, will mean real improvement for moderate income families. But to glue this housing coalition together so that both groups benefit will put a higher price tag on the program. The larger constituency may also shape the housing policy to their needs rather than those of the poor.

The private housing market, supported by FHA mortgage insurance and tax credits that favor the wealthy, has proved so inefficient that the state must intervene directly. It will not suffice to dole out income subsidies to meet the housing needs of the state. What must be forcibly eliminated are the restrictive building regulations and zoning laws which price out even moderate income housing.

This brief discussion hardly touches basic services like education, transportation, health care, day-care centers, consumer education and family ning. The State and the Poor stresses the desperate need of state officials to obtain some measure of control over "the fragmented administrative landscape in which 200 different agencies go their own way." But while extolling policy and planning the poverty scholars fail to demonstrate that their antipoverty program has a viable political future. The poor, it is safe to say, we will always have with us in Massachusetts- at least for quite a few elections to come.

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