In 1959 Michael Harrington shocked America with the claim that 50 million of its citizens were living in poverty. His magazine article turned into a book and by 1964 President Johnson was standing outside a shack in Kentucky announcing that the nation was at war with poverty. Ever since, anti-poverty activists have cranked away at the same formula but without the same success. If the strategy worked then, why doesn’t it work now?
One reason is that small government activists are a lot more savvy these days. They know that if claims about widespread poverty are allowed to go unchallenged political leaders are likely to attach themselves to the problem. Politicians thrive on problems — creating a sense of crisis is an essential skill. As Johnson’s aide Harry McPherson explained:
The problem of democratic leaders, little "d" and big "D", is that they must grab the attention of the public; they must convince the public that there is an urgent problem that needs to be solved, and to do that they really have to hit him like the old farmer hits the mule between the eyes to get his attention. And once he has his attention, then they have to come along and say "But all is not lost. We have a solution." That’s the format that has always been used (pdf).
National capitals like Washington and Canberra are filled with people marketing problems and solutions to political leaders. Harrington knew how this game worked and never apologised for talking up his statistics:
If my interpretation is bleak and grim, and even if it overstates the case slightly, that is intentional. My moral point of departure is a sense of outrage, a feeling that the obvious and existing problem of the poor is so shocking that it would be better to describe it in dark tones rather than to minimize it. No one will be hurt if the situation is seen from the most pessimistic point of view, but optimism can lead to complacency… (p 171-172)
For Harrington, arguments about statistics were ‘dry, graceless, technical matters" and "any tendency toward understatement is an intellectual way of acquiescing in suffering" (p 172). Even in 1963 Dwight Macdonald was describing this tactic as "moral bullying."
Harrington’s campaign hit the media more than 40 years ago. Activists need to be more sophisticated in 2005. Today think tank researchers like Heritage’s Robert Rector are there to make sure the mule doesn’t get whacked with frightening poverty statistics. Like the Centre for Independent Studies’ Peter Saunders in Australia, Rector is always quick to discredit poverty research — "The average ‘poor’ person., as defined by the government, has a living standard far higher than the public imagines" he patiently explains — before lulling everyone to sleep with another chart-filled report devoted to dry, graceless, technical matters.
When anti-anti-poverty activists like Rector are successful, journalists, politicians and other gatekeepers are cautious about helping activists whack the mule. What might once have seemed to be facts now start to look like opinions that could put their credibility at risk. The effect is to keep the issue off the agenda and send politicians looking for other problems — preferably those caused by high levels of taxation and government interference in the market. In Australia ‘good’ Peter Saunders laments the effectiveness of the strategy. In his recent book The Poverty Wars, he explains that attacks on poverty estimates:
The criticisms have received extensive media coverage and left many confused about the issues and correspondingly doubtful about the voracity [sic] of claims that poverty remains high and is increasing (p 8).
The reason think tank intellectuals like the CIS’ Peter Saunders don’t want poverty on the agenda is that most of the intuitively obvious solutions to the problem involve expanding the size and scope of government. It’s far easier to create confusion about how poverty is defined and measured than it is to explain why smaller government and freer markets will make low income people better off. Once political leaders and the media are convinced there’s a problem, most of the damage is done.
When the Kennedy Whitehouse first started getting interested in poverty, Kennedy’s staff met with senior federal bureaucrats to look at ways to solve the problem. According to Nicholas Lemann:
Every government agency has a wish list of programs it has long been unable to get past the White House and Congress; the poverty idea brought out the wish lists, and a number of programs that hadn’t made the cut for the New Deal, thirty years earlier, came up. The Secretary of Labor, Willard Wirtz, a ponderous man who had been Adlai Stevenson’s law partner in Chicago, wanted jobs programs, run by the Labor Department. The key bureaucrat at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Wilbur Cohen, an old New Dealer and a veteran lobbyist for social-welfare programs, wanted education and welfare programs, run by HEW.
When the problem gets lodged on the political agenda the game is on — bureaucrats, academics, and service providers will all pitch their favourite solutions. From a small government activist’s point of view this is a disaster — particularly when its combined with a hyperactive President like LBJ. After the Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson decided to go in hard against poverty. As Lenmann explains, "Johnson was by nature not interested in small, slowly developing programs, especially when his first major initiative as President was involved."
Unfortunately neither Johnson or anyone in his administration had any idea how to go about eradicating poverty. The experts suggested ‘Community Action’ and ‘maximum feasible participation’ by the poor and Johnson agreed to go along with this plan. But according to his biographer Robert Dallek, the President wasn’t entirely convinced:
In trying to sell Congress on legislating a fight against poverty, Johnson could rationalize his public rhetoric by private hopes that, even if what he proposed now did not work, there would be ample opportunity in the next eight years to find the means that would. Moreover, he understood from past experience that, once a major government program had been put in place, it would be easier for supporters to modify its workings than for opponents to dismantle it (p 80).
This is exactly what anti-anti-poverty activists like Rector and Saunders are afraid of. They don’t want to see politicians calling in the poverty experts because they know what the experts will recommend — higher taxes, more generous welfare benefits, work and training programs, and more money for research.
There was a time when small government activists didn’t pay much attention to funding experts on social policy and the price they paid was a lack of influence. When anti-poverty activists stirred up interest in their problem journalists and politicians turned to the experts. Since the experts weren’t exactly enthusiasts for small government the results were predictable. Poorly-informed conservative voices ranted in the wilderness as government spending mounted.
These days privately funded think tanks are staffed with market-enthusiasts bristling with credentials in social science disciplines. As Heritage vice-President Burton Pines explained: "Our role is to provide conservative public-policy makers with arguments to bolster our side. We’re not troubled over this. There are plenty of think tanks on the other side." Think tank researchers openly admit they’re engaged in a war of ideas where credibility matters. To win the war they need to protect their own credibility and attack that of their opponents. This has come as a shock to some academic researchers.
Once their credibility is established, think tank experts make ideal sources for journalists. To avoid appearing biased, journalists will seek out opposing views on issues like poverty or welfare dependence. And even if the majority of academic experts agree, quotes and opinion pieces from think tank experts can often make it look as if expert opinion is evenly divided. Writing in the US, Marty Kaplan explains, "Conservative think tanks manufacture debate. That’s what they do: their aim is to create controversy, even when the facts are indisputable, because they know how enslaved contemporary journalism is by the tyranny of false equivalence."
Unfortunately today’s anti-poverty activists sometimes act as if they are still living in the 1960s — as if it were possible to generate government action simply by producing scholarly reports showing that poverty is bad and getting worse. It’s not that simple anymore.
Note: the quote underneath the Churchillian Peter Gordon Saunders of the Social Policy Research Centre is from a book review by his nemesis — Peter Robert Saunders of the Centre for Independent Studies. At Catallaxy, Rafe Champion has a post on the latest Saunders vs Saunders controversy.