May 11, 2009

Gans on Severe Poverty

Renowned sociologist Professor Herbert J. Gans has spent a fruitful career examining such topics as urban and public sociology, public policy, ethnicity, mass media, democracy. He is the author of central sociological texts like The Urban Villagers, The Levittowners: How People Live and Politic in Suburbia, Popular Culture and High Culture, The War Against the Poor, Democracy and the News, and Imagining America in 2033, among many others. In addition to studying social phenomena, Professor Gans has also mentored generations of sociologists, many of them through participant-observation and ethnographic studies.

Recently, Professor Gans shared with us a set of anti-poverty policy proposals for the excluded poor, drafted for review by members of the Obama administration. In this policy paper, Gans describes the "excluded poor" as the over 40 percent of all officially poor people who earn half or less of the poverty line income. Gans notes that the proportion of people who fall in this category rose from 25% to 43% between 1970 and 2007; and that other problems associated with severe poverty have worsened as well during this period.

As we noted in our needs assessment of reentry in Upper Manhattan, the four community districts that comprise Upper Manhattan are among the poorest in New York City. The median household income in Upper Manhattan was $28,817 in 2006, compared to $46,480 for the rest of New York City. Approximately 1 in 3 households in Upper Manhattan had incomes of less than $15,000 for the same year. Poverty is a deep and persistent aspect of uptown life and most reentrants come back to families that are facing difficult economic situations.

As observers have noted, there are many hidden financial burdens that communities are left to manage when family members and neighbors go to prison:

  • Where families used to rely on two incomes or support from a non-custodial parent to feed a family and pay the bills, they now must make do with only one salary.

  • Businesses (most notably small businesses) lose both employees and customers.

  • Houses of worship and volunteer programs must gather the resources to provide services that poor families require once they have lost the income of a household member.

  • For crimes that result in death or severe disability, victims’ families are permanently stripped of the earning potential of the deceased or disabled – and may also become burdened with unexpected property loss or medical costs. (Fields, Gary, “Communities Pay Price of High Prison Rate,” The Wall Street Journal, 11 June 2008).

These financial burdens come as additional strains on many families already struggling to survive below the poverty line.

Professor Gans thinks that antipoverty policy should address these issues in two ways: first, attempts at greater public understanding and explanation of why the excluded poor are excluded. "Understanding is required to make antipoverty programs politically more salable; explanation should help in bringing about understanding." Second, the government should implement a set of specific economic and other programs that can reach this often hard-to-reach popultion. Acutely aware of political realities, Gans reminds us that "poverty programs which directly help the poor often require them to be blameless." Thus, a solution might be to officially target these programs toward the working poor, making sure that the excluded poor also benefit in some way. Above all, Gans sees inclusion in the labor market as the primary vehicle for escape from severe poverty.

We encourage you to read this piece for yourself -- it calls attention to the need for greater political participation among the severely poor and offers a number of policy proposals for how the current administration could take advantage of this moment to bring more people up to the starting line.