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The Poverty of David Brooks

David Brooks' shtick since coming to the New York Times got old fast, but now it's disgraceful. As a Weekly Standard writer, he at least showed some imagination and a range of interests, but on the op-ed page
-- which for many people is the one and only opinionated/analytical thing they regularly read -- he has fallen back on hackwork that wouldn't cut it on National Review Online.

All the hallmarks of Brooks' style were in play yesterday, particularly the appearance of condescending respect for liberals in order to twist the skewer a little more discreetly. But it's the substance that is most

[Senator John] Edwards deserves some praise because he is the only major candidate who talks consistently about the poor. The problem is that he talks about poverty in an obsolete way, which suggests he has learned nothing from the past 40 years.

Edwards talks about poverty in economic terms. He vows to bring jobs back to poor areas and restrict trade to protect industries. He suggests that if we could take money from the rich and special interests, there'd
be more for the underprivileged.

This kind of talk is descended from Marxist theory, which holds that we live in the thrall of economic conditions. What the poor primarily need is more money, the theory goes.

From "deserves some praise" to "pinko" in just three twisted sentences -- that's good. The problem is, there's nothing "Marxist" about the idea that poor people need more money. Hello? What is it they need more? Prayer cards? Abstinence education? The only way a poor family becomes not-poor is with money.

The question is how best to increase the income, assets and prospects of poor families, without fostering the sort of dependence that we all understand that traditional welfare -- no-strings attached income transfers -- can create. What is the combination of education, hard and soft skills training, tax and other incentives to "make work pay," minimum wage increases, union organizing rights, child care, localized economic policies to create jobs, macro-economic policies to create jobs, health care, and safety net programs to ease transitions that will most effectively reduce the hardship of the poor and near-poor?

After the quick pivot, Brooks unveils his next move, which is to use liberals or moderates to support radically conservative points. He cites Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings insitution for the point that "we could double the amount we spend on welfare programs, and we would not make an important dent in poverty." That's true, but for the simple economic reason that welfare benefits are not and have never been sufficient to lift an eligible family above the poverty line, in any state, and they have always been so minimal that, even doubled, they would not cross above the poverty line. Sawhill's point was made in the very "economic terms" that Brooks derides as "obsolete." Welfare was not a failed anti-poverty program. It's not an anti-poverty program at all.

Really, it's Brooks who's talking about poverty in obsolete ways, and I don't mean just that that seems descended from such 19th century theorists as the Darwinian Herbert Spencer and Samuel Smiles, the English reformer and author of "Self-Help." More to the point, Brooks is writing as if Bill Clinton and welfare reform had never happened. He writes as if the shift to linking most benefits to work had never happened. I was a little unfair to Clinton in a previous post on Edwards, and given the chance to correct the record, I'd like to point out that one of Clinton's lasting achievements was to take the issue of welfare and the behavior of the poor off the table, enabling someone like Edwards to talk about poverty without apology, which wasn't possible in 1992.

Liberals like Clinton (though not all liberals) didn't have to be dragged to the recognition that welfare was an insufficient anti-poverty strategy. They understood it. They wanted to add strong supports for work, child care, real training requirements, and even time limits. (In the 1992 campaign, Harvard social scientist David Ellwood convinced Clinton that, by investing $10 billion a year in other supports, one could have a five-year time limit on welfare that no one would ever actually reach.) What Republicans or "conservatives" added to the mix was the idea of making welfare a block grant to states, rather than making it variable with economic conditions (which would have been a disaster if the economy had not done well, but as it turned out, it meant that states had extra money); the rejection of education as a legitimate use of a welfare recipient's time; and extraneous crap such as "abstinence-only education."

Thanks to welfare reform, we are now well beyond the equation of poverty with welfare. Welfare rolls are down by more than half, but the poverty rate is not. And the hardship and economic insecurity of the near-poor -- whether those who have left welfare and are now precariously living in the low-end job market, or those who were never on welfare -- is the next issue. In fact, I don't think that Edwards was talking about poverty so much in the literal, below-the-poverty-line sense as in a general sense that families making less than $25,000 or so, without health insurance, with few transferable skills and a precarious job, are in worse shape than ever.

Brooks pretends to acknowledge this, when, in another of his more generous sentences, he says that "while conservatives were right about the basic nature of poverty [that is, that it's not about money, apparently], liberals are right when they point out that simply getting people off welfare and into the world of work is not enough... we're going to need support programs to complete the successes of the 1990s."

And then Brooks's third tactic: the glib "no one is talking about this." This is the laziest columnists' gambit. Sometimes it's true, of course. But more often, it relies on the reader just nodding along and assuming it's true. And of course it's not true. Edwards wasn't advocating a negative income tax, or some raw transfer of income from the wealthy to the poor. He was calling, in some detail, for exactly the "support programs" that Brooks calls for, for exactly the mix of education, health care, child care, macro policies, job-creation incentives, organizing rights and other things that I talked about above. One might disagree on some of them -- I disagree on trade, for example -- but to say "nobody's talking about" the supports needed to help people escape poverty is inane.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on March 3, 2004 | Permalink


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Echdine looks at the same Brooks article as you do, but she concentrates a bit more on Brook's sneer at the poor. A good compliment to your reply (or vice-versa). Here's the link: Echdine's post.

Posted by: ScottM | Mar 3, 2004 6:58:27 PM

In other words, Brook's hackery has now reached Kausian proportions.

Posted by: Kuas | Mar 3, 2004 7:26:00 PM

Thanks for the post, Mark. I confess I got as far as Brooks' "Edwards talks about poverty in economic terms" line and had to quit. I actually cringe for the guy sometimes.

Posted by: cs | Mar 3, 2004 11:24:07 PM

I agree, except you give NRO a bit too much credit. Don't they write checks to John Derbyshire?

Posted by: Angry Bear | Mar 4, 2004 2:07:21 AM

I'm not sure I agree totally with the idea that Clinton "took welfare off the table" so that liberals can talk about it "without apology."

The very existence of Brooks' column is evidence against that notion, as is the fact that the IRS spends far more time and money looking for EITC cheats than they do tracking down corporate fraudsters.

Take a look at what some Southerners are saying in Kevin Griffis' recent piece on AlterNet, "Democrat Not Spoken Here."

"[I]n conversations with a number of voters," he writes, "the bugaboo of welfare queens was cited as a reason they plan on voting Republican."

One says: "Voters are 'tired of paying people who sit around all day on their butts.'

And another "feels like the government's doing enough to level the playing field."

While yet another believes that "Bush ain't just standing back saying we've got to give more money to the poor to stimulate the economy. That ain't what makes it work."

I guess some people just have not gotten the message. Which has everything to do with the fact that the Right has played up the issue of "welfare dependency" every bit as deceitfully and successfully as they have with Sadaam's WMDs and Al-Qaeda links.

And liberals, as usual, just rolled right over.

Posted by: Tom Geraghty | Mar 4, 2004 2:22:21 AM

I wonder whether becoming a NYT op-ed columnist reveals the banality of an author's thought - by stripping it of its elegant and obfuscating decorations and reducing it to its raw form - or whether the genre simply encourages banality.

As an admirer of Krugman from his Fortune/Slate days, I was distressed to see his marvellously clear explications of complicated economic issues turn into biweekly attack snippets in the NYT. Now it is clear that Krugman was way ahead of the curve in recognizing Bush's unprecedented mendacity and his columns have clearly served a valuable political function, but I rarely read them with intellectual delight as in the old days. In fact, now that I acknowledge Bush's Nixonian mendacity, I rarely bother to read Krugman at all. Conclusion: the NYT op-ed page made Krugman banal. Let's hope after November 2004 he shifts his unique talent to a better forum (like the NYT Sunday magazine).

Like many Democrats, Brooks was my favorite Republican in his pre-NYT op-ed incarnation: reasonable, curious, observant, non-dogmatic, even if his Straussian admiration of soulfulness and disdain for science grated. Based on Krugman's experience, I regretted his decision to shift to the NYT op-ed page. I have been surprised, however, how bad he has been (in addition to the egregious poverty column skewered by the Decembrist, I'd also single out his idiotic critique of the CIA as duped by their reliance on social science methodology instead of Straussian soulfulness - ah, yes, if they'd have stared at the evil in Saddam's soul they wouldn't have bothered their pretty little heads about whether those tubes were the right size for centrifuges...). It appears that what Brooks had was a great eye for sociological detail - something that simply cannot be transferred to the 750-word column - and was not, fundamentally, a logical thinker at all. Conclusion: being NYT op-ed writer revealed the banality of Brooks' thought.

Posted by: Terry | Mar 4, 2004 8:19:00 AM

David Brooks is a toadying hack in any number of words and always has been. Was the David Brooks love fest for Charles-Bell-Curve-Murray supposed to impress me because it was long? The NYTimes was terrified enough to hire this toady hack. How sad.

Posted by: anne | Mar 4, 2004 2:46:26 PM

Love Paul Krugman is any number of words. Here is a writer in the steps of Anthony Lewis....

Posted by: anne | Mar 4, 2004 2:48:03 PM

David Brooks is the Uriah Heep of pundits: all faux-humble and ingratiating, with a pious homily about the virtue of civility ever on his lips. But he's a movement guy, and is no less willing than the rest of them to make bad faith arguments, and to subordinate civility to polemics.

Posted by: son volt | Mar 4, 2004 3:20:08 PM

such 19th century theorists as the Darwinian Herbert Spencer

Wouldn't a more apt description of Spencer be "Social Darwinist," rather than "Darwinian"?

Posted by: Ed Fitzgerald (unfutz) | Mar 5, 2004 3:10:06 AM

I work with the poor a lot, I hire them for cash. The best thing you can do for the poor is to roll off the payroll taxes at the low end. The 15% jump in labor costs of keeping many of the poor out of the legitimate labor market.

Otherwise, I doubt the liberals will do anything but make the problem worse. The poor have all the access to education and training they need, at least in my town.

What the poor need is smaller government. Believe me, many, if not most, of the poors problemns occur from having to deal with government intervention, from payroll taxes, income taxes, zoning regulations, morality laws, petty crime enforcement, and labor restrictions. All of these government hassles come from liberals trying to do good.

Why not just make cash labor legal for anyone making less than $30,000. No FICA, no IRS, no Workers comnp, no nothing, just cash. Do this, and the poor will thrive.

Posted by: Matt Young | Mar 6, 2004 7:34:51 AM

You are very correct about Brooks. I hadn't noticed it as much before, but look at Saturday's piece. It starts out looking like it will discuss both Bush and Kerry, and turns into an all out attack on Kerry's rich background without any discussion of Bush whatsoever other than dropping his name in the first paragraph. Weak.

Posted by: Aaron | Mar 6, 2004 8:59:49 AM

On a practical level my experience as a welfare mother in the late 70's changed my life for the positive, here's why: I was able to get on welfare/foodstamps that provided me with an income/food(being a single parent with one child qualified me); I was able to access incredibly good childcare on a sliding fee scale at a great childcare facility; I was able to go to school practically free because I qualified for all government grants; I was able to access low cost housing so I could keep a roof over my head. 4-5 years of this and I was off into the work world which I have been in since paying taxes (23 years), giving back and grateful for what the "government" and the people who worked in the "government" did for me and my child. I was given a hand up, helped along and overall treated in a positive manner (though there were moments when this wasn't true, it was never enough to turn me against the idea that if we/government truly help people rather then beat them down we can make a real difference in people's lives). Government can be a positive force.

Posted by: HowdyDoody | Mar 6, 2004 2:22:58 PM

"Why not just make cash labor legal for anyone making less than $30,000. No FICA, no IRS, no Workers comnp, no nothing, just cash. Do this, and the poor will thrive."


Posted by: lise | Mar 6, 2004 5:17:12 PM

Re. Terry's point...Krugman's had 2 very good pieces in The New York Review of Books that I've found far more compelling than his NYT column. Here's one:


The other, from 11/20/03 issue is available for a fee on-line.

Posted by: Bart Acocella | Mar 8, 2004 2:52:13 PM

That's true, but for the simple economic reason that welfare benefits are not and have never been sufficient to lift an eligible family above the poverty line, in any state, and they have always been so minimal that, even doubled, they would not cross above the poverty line.

Then precisely how does welfare create dependency?

Bill Clinton didn't take welfare off the table, he cravenly and disgustingly capitulated. WHy would the right be sated, why wouldn't they want further capitulation.

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