Both Parties in Denial Over Resolving Urban Poverty

In the 1990s, there was a bipartisan consensus on welfare reform. That's now ancient history.

Two homes sit side-by-side in the Fort Greene neighborhood where the director and artist Spike Lee once lived on February 27, 2014 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. During a recent African-American History Month lecture, Lee used strong language to vent his feelings about gentrification in his former neighborhood and other parts of Brooklyn. Numerous Brooklyn neighborhoods, which were once considered dangerous and underdeveloped, have gone through transformations in recent years resulting in more affluent newcomers displacing long time residents. The 'Do The Right Thing' director accused many newcomers of not respecting neighborhoods history or character. (National Journal)

Back in the 1990s, Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican Jack Kemp each offered his party a sophisticated, empathetic understanding of the causes and possible cures of entrenched urban poverty. Both the dismissive comments last week from Republican Rep. Paul Ryan about the inner-city poor and the fierce backlash against his remarks show how much each side has retreated from that broad understanding.

Although Clinton and Kemp, the former House member and 1996 GOP vice presidential nominee, didn't always agree, they joined leading thinkers from each party in understanding that both economic and cultural obstacles contributed to lasting poverty — and that demanding more personal responsibility without providing more opportunity was empty posturing. "There was a broad agreement that a comprehensive view required you to look at both dimensions," recalled Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist group that helped shape Clinton's thinking. That intellectual consensus helped produce the landmark 1996 welfare-reform bill passed by the GOP Congress and signed by Clinton.

None of that balanced understanding survived last week in Ryan's radio interview with William Bennett. Ryan pinned poverty solely on personal failings (we face a "tailspin of culture in our inner cities") and overly generous federal benefits (that created "a poverty trap "¦ [with] incentives not to work"). The answer, he insisted, was to "reemphasize work" as a condition of federal assistance, just as the 1996 welfare-reform law did.

Nowhere in his analysis did Ryan acknowledge how globalization and technological advances have obliterated economic opportunities for low-income workers, especially men. His account of welfare reform was equally selective. While stressing the bill's work requirements, Ryan ignored its expansion of child care and job training. The work mandate also followed earlier Clinton measures to "make work pay" for low-wage workers — for instance, by increasing federal tax credits. In all those ways, welfare reform upheld the Clinton mantra that social policy should marry "opportunity and responsibility."

Ryan's comments weren't offhand; he's made similar arguments for years. Well before Mitt Romney mused about "the 47 percent," Ryan had warned about a social "tipping point" where "takers" outnumber "makers" (his words) — and vote themselves ever-increasing benefits. And Ryan has argued for spending cuts by insisting that government today "lulls able-bodied people into lives of dependency."

Ryan, as a young analyst, worked with Kemp at the think tank Empower America and counts him as a mentor. But Ryan's comments showed how much the GOP has withdrawn from Kemp's inclusive perspective. A unique figure as passionate about cutting taxes as uplifting the needy, Kemp always bridled against suggestions that the poor are morally deficient. He believed the way to unlock the "spark of creativity in all our people" was through positive incentives, like tax breaks, not by withdrawing public benefits (much less public scolding). "We are great as conservatives at saying how bad government is," Kemp once told me. "Why can't government do the right thing?"

So Ryan's comments amply justified Marshall's tough conclusion: "He oversimplified and distorted in a way that's worthy of criticism." But the intensity of the backlash still displayed ominous instincts among Democrats. Ryan's focus on inner-city poverty, despite the defects in his analysis, remains an admirable attempt to reach beyond the virtually all-white electoral coalition that Republicans rely on today. The overheated Democratic accusations of racism against him will likely discourage other Republicans from following. "Others will say, 'See what happens: This is a hopeless task,' " says longtime GOP strategist Peter Wehner, who worked with Ryan at Empower America and denounces as "ludicrous" suggestions that he's racist.

More important, just as Ryan's remarks represented a regression from Kemp, the Democratic reaction captures a parallel retreat from Clinton. In denouncing Ryan, congressional Democrats and allied liberal thinkers have so stressed the economic barriers in high-poverty communities that they have "seemed blind," as Marshall says, to legitimate cultural obstacles such as family breakdown and disconnection from work.

Clinton, by contrast, always pushed to increase public investment in poor neighborhoods — and to discourage self-destructive behavior. (To his credit, so does President Obama.) In his presidency's greatest speech, Clinton in 1993 stood in the pulpit where Martin Luther King preached his final sermon and warned that the great man "did not live and die" to see young men shoot each other or fathers abandon their children. Reflecting years later on the largely extemporaneous speech, Clinton told me, "I just thought to myself, 'I'm going to do all this work, turn the economy around, and what difference is it going to make if these kids keep killing each other?' "

Could a white Democrat repeat Clinton's words today without provoking a backlash within the party? Could a Republican insist, as Kemp did, that the GOP can't stand only for "little government and big prisons?" The formula of linking "opportunity and responsibility" that Clinton and Kemp each championed in his own manner still offers the best chance to revive hope in communities where it has flickered — even if our calcifying politics discourage too many in each party from saying so.