Page 29


Steve Brodner BOOKS & THE CULTURE Get A Job The New War on Poverty in Texas BY ROBERT FISHER V More than thirty years ago, Lyndon Baines Johnson helped launch a War on Poverty. A generation later, Texas leads the way again, in what looks more like a war on the poor. We’re Number One but only if you turn things upside down. Texans should be appalled by our new status as one of the worst states in the union if not the worst for people at the bottom. How bad is it? As of 1996 \(the most reTexas residents earned family incomes below the federal poverty line \($16,240 for tion, including economically much weaker states like Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas. According to the Houston-based advocacy group Children at Risk, in Harris County alone, 43 percent of the students in public schools are economically disadvantaged: 246,000 out of 579,000 kids. Most of those children are Hispanic and AfricanAmerican. And the problem is getting worse: those numbers represent a 42 percent increase in the poverty rate since 1990. What has been the state’s response? Cut social services. In the wake of the 1996 federal welfare “reform” law, authority over a wide range of policies and programs for the poor is now directly in the hands of the states. What used to be called “welfare” Aid to Families of Dependent Children has been replaced by block grants, under a program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Whereas A.F.D.C. was a federal social support program, T.A.N.F. is primarily a funding stream, presumably to address a wide range of needs. T.A.N.F. effectively delegates as well the authority to attend to the needs of the poor or to ignore them. Given the current nationwide dominance of conservative ideology resting on the conviction that all welfare programs are bad in most states, the poor are doing worse than before. Both political parties the reactionaries who dominate the Republican Party , and the so-called centrists who hold sway among the Democrats have embraced the attack on welfare. In Welfare’s End, Gwendolyn Mink argues that such punitive policies are the direct result of the politics of race, gender, and class. Under welfare reform, women and children have indeed taken the primary blows, and the victims are also disproportionately African-American and Hispanic. But beyond explicit sexism or racism, a very conservative vision of global capitalism also drives these policies, because pushing the poor away from public-sector supports also forces them into private labor markets at the cheapest rates, effectively driving down the cost of labor to business. One conventional principle of this conservative vision is that welfare programs “cause” poverty. Therefore, the only way for people to break the chains of poverty is to “end welfare as we know it”: force welfare recipients into the workforce, thus ending poverty \(and cutting taxes in the bardoes best, help big business. The proper place for the public sector is to underwrite private projects, such as baseball and football stadiums, or to construct infrastructure improvements \(streets, sewers, water, public jects. The corollary principle is that it is inappropriate and unacceptable to use public sector funds to help the poor. Such programs only siphon cheap labor out of the market, raise the cost of doing business, and cause people to turn to the government for help, when they should be out there in the “free market,” fending for themselves. Rather than ending poverty, of course, MARCH 19, 1999 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 25 .-.00A101.1101..