Alibi V.13 No.32 • Aug 5-11, 2004 

Ortiz y Pino

Redefining Poverty

Little Progress in Any of Our Wars on Nouns

Right before the Democratic National Convention opened last week in Boston, another Bush appointee made the trip from D.C. to our electorally strategic state for a visit with the grass roots. Clarence Carter, head of the Community Services Administration, was here right after Gail Norton and Tommy Thompson, just before Vice President Dick Cheney's visit to Rio Rancho. He came to drum up interest in his attempt to redefine poverty. But his visit raised as many questions as it answered.

All these pilgrimages (you can expect them to continue with metronomic regularity right up to election day) are apparently designed to reassure us that, despite all evidence to the contrary, this administration cares. Mr. Carter, at least, does. He is a likable Virginian, a powerfully built African American with the passion and intensity of a preacher intent on securing only the best for his congregation. He is also someone who takes seriously the charge given to his particular box of responsibility within the enormous federal organizational maze: fighting the War on Poverty.

It was refreshing to hear from our Poverty Czar. I know we don't call him that, not in the way that we refer to our "Drug Czar" or our "Terrorism Czar," the heads of our other Wars on Nouns, but I think he deserves the same kind of mantle. After all, his war, our first against a noun, has been going on for nearly 40 years, twice as long as we've been warring on drugs and 20 times the lifespan of our War on Terror.

Sometimes I forget we declared War on Poverty back in 1965. You can go months without seeing any reference to its battles. It never occupies lead story or front page status. Its casualties slip unnoticed past even the obituary editors. Its occasional victories prompt no parades or distribution of medals.

Its many defeats produce tears only rarely. It is definitely a forgotten War. But Clarence Carter's visit reminded me that it has never been resolved. No armistice has been declared; no treaty signed. Our official governmental policy is to continue attacking until all evidence of poverty is eradicated.

Just like our policy on Drugs.

Just like our policy on Terror.

And just about as successfully.

There are a couple of differences. For one, the entire budget of the Community Services Administration, which channels funds to Community Action Programs around the country, is less than $5 billion a year. The War on Drugs costs 10 times that, and the War on Terror costs at least 20 times that amount, unless you figure Iraq is somehow related to fighting terror (mostly it seems to be fomenting terror). In that case, the War on Terror really drains 40 (or more) times as much out of the federal budget as the War on Poverty does. Then Halliburton has never been given a contract in the War on Poverty. Drats! I'm sorry I mentioned that because sure as shootin' ...

But I digress.

Mr. Carter's current project actually makes a great deal of sense. A redefinition of poverty, even if 40 years into the War, would help us answer two very basic questions: What are we fighting? And how will we know when we've won? Ever since the weak opening volleys were fired in the War on Poverty back in the mid '60s, we've used a single statistical measure to define poverty, annually issuing the "revised official poverty level" from Washington, one calibrated for family size and changes in our economy. It is used for everything from Medicaid eligibility to free school lunches, yet it bears little relationship to anything other than being an accepted convention for how much it takes to scrape by at a level slightly above starvation.

Now Carter wants to incorporate up-to-date research, economic models, developmental assessments, whatever it takes to make our current one-dimensional definition richer, more accurate, more reality-grounded. He is convening a series of "summits" in the next three months to initiate this process.

I applaud his desire for a better definition. We need one. Yet, when he said that "Poverty is about more than just income," I confess I drew a blank about what else might be involved. Could there be people whose incomes are below the existing poverty level but whose personal assets and character strengths were such that they should not be defined as poor?

That kind of redefinition could make the numbers of the poor drop drastically; create an impression that we're winning the War. Or are there a great many people who actually have incomes above (sometimes well above) those arbitrary poverty standards but who are "in harm's way" somehow, living under potential social or medical threats that make them more susceptible, more vulnerable?

A redefinition that leans in that direction would paint a far darker picture, with enormously different policy implications. We need to watch the effort closely to make sure spin doctors higher up than Carter in the administration don't manipulate it.

For now it seems that the War on Poverty is going no better than the Wars on Drugs or Terror. Using our old standard definition, the percentage of "poor" in our country, which fell significantly during the first decade of the War, has since risen gradually until today it is almost exactly what it was when Lyndon Johnson fired the first shot. Tricky devils, these nouns.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.