Even as welfare became a political football, the United States developed another, much more successful antipoverty program: Social Security. Of course, Americans do not think of Social Security as a poverty program (and Blank doesn't treat it as one either). Americans applaud Social Security for its nearly universal coverage and its lack of stigmatizing means tests. They understand Social Security benefits as a socially legitimate return for a lifetime of contributions through work and payroll taxes. Regardless of how Social Security is thought of, since the 1970s it has in fact pulled many more Americans above the poverty line than all other social programs combined. Social Security has also remained popular with ordinary citizens, even amid federal budgetary cutbacks and resistance to other kinds of taxation.
As It Takes a Nation skillfully documents, many American workers today are finding it difficult to earn wages and benefits adequate to sustain a family. This problem transcends race and includes both single- and dual-parent families. So why not take the opportunity that the demise of AFDC now thrusts upon us? Why not start talking about broad new ways -- a widening of the idea of social security -- to help the majority of American working parents, with extra help for the poorest offered in the context of such an overall effort? This approach may not seem realistic for 1997 and 1998, but it could gain popularity and plausibility over five to ten years -- about the same amount of time that it took conservative Republicans to capture Congress from the Democrats and bring their crusade against AFDC to fruition.
Blank dismisses broad social programs as politically unfeasible, even though her own elaborate prescriptions are equally so. Over the past several decades liberal antipoverty warriors have suffered from a crimped sense of political realism. While constantly retailoring narrow policy prescriptions to the perceived mood of the moment in Washington, D.C., they plug away at amassing facts, doing complex statistical analyses, and writing books and articles that avoid political stances and "rhetorical" appeals to popular sentiment. By now we know that this approach doesn't work. But here is Rebecca Blank, trying it one more time. Although she deftly synthesizes decades of academic research, her book will, predictably, never achieve even a fraction of the political influence attained by Charles Murray's factually sloppy 1984 manifesto, , which became the veritable bible of the Reaganite assault on welfare. In politics, Murray and his fellow conservatives know, the use of emotional images and moral appeals to a majority matter much more than accurate statistical tables.
Blank and other poverty researchers are having a hard time weaning themselves from the old welfare programs. They still want to go back and tinker with the Personal Responsibility Act of 1996. But the American people will not accept elaborate benefits or services restricted to some very poor parents in an era when so many working families are struggling with low wages, dwindling or absent health benefits, and inadequate child-care arrangements. Compassionate policies toward the poor await the wider solidarity of a new politics of social and economic security -- the ground of the next liberalism.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 1997; The next Liberalism; Volume 279, No. 4; pages 118-120.