by Timothy Ross
It is possible to support public housing as part of a broader progressive strategy — two corners of the same tent. However, Tom Angotti makes at least three mistakes in his response to my article. He suggests that concentrations of poverty or wealth are not real issues, that public housing should be a focal point of progressive political strategy, and that defending public housing is a requirement for all progressives. On each of these points, I believe he is misguided.
Angotti says that there are only “some dubious studies” that support the idea that concentrations of poverty have an impact on communities. Dismissing William J. Wilson, whose book The Truly Disadvantaged sparked a wave of research on concentrated poverty, is a huge mistake. Other research shows that concentrating poor people in inner cities limits their ability to find work in job-rich suburbs and that concentrating students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds in the same school hurts educational attainment. Though the Gatreaux project (which moves public housing tenants to the suburbs) is by no means the best or only way to tackle the problems of the inner city, the improvements in income and educational attainment by the children of program participants suggest that living in concentrated poverty severely limits life possibilities.
As for concentrations of wealth, the ability of the wealthy to retreat to suburban enclaves wreaks havoc on the capacity of cities to pay for housing and other social services. In addition, the wealthy’s geographic separation leads to social and political insulation. This insulation helps to sustain the belief among this group that there is plenty of opportunity for everyone, that few people are suffering, and that the schools are really not that bad. In sum, it is puzzling to hear a progressive planner say that concentrated poverty and wealth are not serious issues.
On political strategy, Angotti mistakenly implies that I want to persuade “Newt and company” of the virtues of government activism in housing policy. The most pressing question for progressives is how to remove Gingrich and the Republicans from power. I do not believe this can be done, as Angotti suggests, by telling the working and middle classes that they are “a plant closing away” from being poor, or that if they help the poor, they are really helping themselves. Angotti seems not to understand that working class people are not just dupes of conservative propaganda, but are genuinely angry at the way the bureaucratic state has run welfare policy. As John Schwartz points out in The Forgotten Americans, there are millions of families where both parents work low paying jobs. This group does not make enough to live on, but earns too much to qualify for government assistance. Liberals like John Reider (Canarsie) and Sam Freedman(The Inheritance) have shown how this group gave up on liberalism because they perceived liberal social programs as focusing only on the very poor while ignoring their needs.
This does not mean, as Angotti says, that the rest of the country does not give a damn about poor people or disadvantaged minorities. Poll after poll shows that a clear majority of Americans support social welfare programs and believe that the country has an obligation to the less fortunate. The public is, however, distrustful of government as a provider. Studies show that public housing works more than it fails, just as studies showed that AFDC served as a temporary aid to most recipients. These studies did not persuade many people to support these programs. We should not abandon public housing, but perhaps the only way to keep public housing from being gutted by conservatives is to offer working class and lower middle class people a package of housing incentives as part of a broad progressive policy program that also maintains public housing. There is no need to blow a hole in the budget to do this — we spend plenty of money on housing now, but much of it goes to those who need it least.
The suggestions outlined in my article would redistribute over $70 billion in government subsidies from the wealthy to working and lower income people, maintain the HUD budget, and do away with some of the worst examples of governmental bias against the poor. Angotti, nonetheless, says this does meet his standard for being a progressive. Republican strategist Mary Matalin, commenting on a recent proposal that would prohibit the GOP from giving assistance to any candidate who does not oppose late term abortions, said, “There can be no litmus test for being a Republican. If there is, we are doomed.” Progressives would do well to learn and act on this lesson.
Timothy Ross is a senior research associate at the Center for Urban Research. His research interests include urban politics and policy, and community organizing. Send all correspondence to 234 Fifth Avenue #1, Brooklyn, NY 11215.
Read Timothy Ross’s original commentary, or Tom Angotti’s response to it.