Answer to Poverty ‘Complex,’ Liberal Group Says

By Michael Gryboski | August 5, 2008 | 5:07 PM EDT

To reduce or end poverty in America is a “complex” matter that requires the cooperation of the government and the marketplace, a liberal policy analyst said.

( - To reduce or end poverty in America is a “complex” matter that requires the cooperation of the government and the marketplace, said Joy Moses, a policy analyst for the liberal Center for American Progress (CAP) at a panel discussion last week. Conservative critics countered, however, questioning the exact role of government in reducing poverty and whether the goal is realistic.
Since the “War on Poverty” began in the 1960s under President Lyndon Johnson, more than $9 trillion has been spent to end poverty in the United States. Moses stressed that the top-down, total government approach was not the answer.
“Part of it is definitely government. Part of it is definitely free market,” Moses told “Part of it is definitely just general citizens who all have to take a role and figure out what can I do and how to best do it.”
Panelist Mark Greenberg, a senior fellow and director of the poverty and prosperity program at CAP, concurred. In an interview with, Greenberg also stressed the importance of both the market and government.
“There has to be a role for both,” he said. “On the one hand it’s crucial for us to be starting with strategies that focus on people working when they are able to do so. At the same time work needs to pay enough for those who are working to be out of poverty, and that requires a combination of what happens in the market and public support.”
Robert Rector, senior research fellow in domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative group, also sees value in the government’s involvement in reducing poverty. But as he told, “It depends on what the government does.”
“The problem with the welfare system is that it discourages work and marriage and therefore is not very helpful in raising peoples’ incomes,” said Rector. 
“So to the extent that you have a welfare system, it has to be a welfare system that rewards constructive behavior rather than rewarding dependence and self-destructive behavior, which is what the current welfare system does,” he added.
Heather MacDonald of the conservative Manhattan Institute also was critical of government’s role in reducing poverty.
“I’m not sure that poverty can be totally eliminated,” said MacDonald, who spoke at CAP’s event. “I mean, there’s always going to be people who are unable to defer gratification and plan for the future.”
“I think the government’s main role should be making sure that communities are safe,” said MacDonald. “You’re not going to have businesses moving in to areas where they fear for the safety of their employees. But as far as providing people with the means to seize economic opportunity, I’m not sure beyond public safety and schools what can be done.”
In the debate on poverty, some think only government programs can solve the problem, and some think that only the free market can solve it. People like Moses are in the middle.
“So, I don’t think there’s an either/or,” she said. “I don’t think we can rely on the free market to completely resolve things, nor can we rely on government to take care of everything either.”
As for defining poverty, Moses and Greenberg said no firm definition exists. However, the Census Bureau uses a “poverty line” definition set by the federal government.
It defines “poverty” as the lack of goods and services taken for granted in society. The Census estimates that, as of 2007, there were about 35 million Americans living in poverty.
However, Moses claimed the Census’ poverty definition “is not the most accurate reflection of poverty. So that’s why we had different folks from both panels talking about finding that definition and making it more reflective of current conditions today.”
Despite the existing poverty, the overall standard of living in the United States has been on the rise.
According to the Census Bureau and the Federal Reserve Board, since 1967 the percentage of families with an income over $75,000 a year has increased from nine percent to 27 percent.
Further, as documented by Rector and reported by economist Walter E. Williams, “In 1971, only about 32 percent of all Americans enjoyed air conditioning in their homes. By 2001, 76 percent of poor people had air conditioning.
“In 1971, only 43 percent of Americans owned a color television; in 2001, 97 percent of poor people owned at least one. In 1971, 1 percent of American homes had a microwave oven; in 2001, 73 percent of poor people had one,” he added.
“Forty-six percent of poor households own their homes. Only about 6 percent of poor households are overcrowded. The average poor American has more living space than the average non-poor individual living in Paris, London, Vienna, Athens and other European cities.”