Social policy is one of the areas upon which the terrorist attacks cast new light. It is my fervent hope that our nation will seize this historic opportunity to demonstrate a renewed national commitment to combat poverty, that crisis in slow motion. America’s war on poverty is at best a dormant and neglected struggle. Even the phrase sounds anachronistic, a quaint reminder of the heady days of some previous era, but surely with no relevance to the new millennium. In any case, according to conventional wisdom, the timing is wrong. We need, it is said, to devote our full attention to the war on terrorism. There is nothing left over for a mundane problem like poverty. Three responses to this argument follow.
First, there is ample historical evidence that external threats to a nation’s security may serve as catalysts for more generous social welfare policies. At the end of the Second World War, our ally Britain discovered within itself the resolve to adopt revolutionary policies to combat poverty. The wartime solidarity that prevailed amid the horrors of the blitz and the bloody campaigns of the war was honored and amplified in universal policies to provide income security to all British citizens, since members of all social classes had risked and lost their lives for the nation. The explosion of welfare guaranteesa system of national health care, unemployment benefits and greatly expanded public housingmarked a definitive break from the previous classbound system that sharply divided and stratified British society. Eligibility was universal because wartime sacrifices had been endured by all. The postwar British government would allow no Brit to starve. The lesson for America is not necessarily to imitate the often maligned British welfare system, but rather to cultivate our sense of civic belonging and to convert our surge of patriotism into tangible measures to combat preventable poverty in our midst and assist all needy Americans.
Second, we are overdue for a revival of anti-poverty measures. Such efforts have tended to follow 30-year cycles. The 20th century witnessed peaks of concern about poverty around 1905 (at the height of the Progressive Era), 1935 (the landmark Social Security Act was passed in the midst of the Great Depression) and 1965 (the legislative climax of Johnson’s Great Society). The expected revival of social concern regarding poverty in the mid-90’s was short-circuited by the ascendancy of Newt Gingrich and his Contract With America. If legislative victories are to be won in the coming years (for example, in next year’s reauthorization of the 1996 welfare reform law), they may perhaps be interpreted as a long-delayed denouement of this turn of the wheel. Conversely, new anti-poverty measures may be viewed as vindication of the axiom that war rushes history, as our patriotism may convert the scourge of poverty from a mere background condition we tolerate to a front-burner problem demanding immediate attention. If the war on terrorism proves to be precisely what it takes to revive the war on poverty, we may find ourselves looking back to the inspiration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose Four Freedoms formulation explicitly linked Freedom From Fear and Freedom From Want.
Third, the most encouraging news I have detected in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks regards attitudes toward federal power. There seems to be a merciful moratorium in the usual clamoring to get government off our backs. For the first time in decades, government is widely portrayed not as the problem but as the solution, or at least as part of the solution, to our extraordinary challenges. While by no means abrogating the principle of subsidiarity and the proper role of the nonpublic and nonprofit sectors, the events of Sept. 11 have reminded us of the built-in limits of private sector efforts to combat complex social problems. It has been sobering to many observers to realize that most of the heroes of this new era, including firemen, rescue workers, air marshals, soldiers and elected officials, are public employees. Crises make strange bedfellows indeed, as proposals for unprecedented government activism and huge commitments of resources to combat terrorism are coming from unusual quarters. If advocates for low-income Americans can make a persuasive case for the link between homeland security and income security, we may witness a long-overdue revival of the war on poverty.
Prominent among these advocates are religious voices. Most impressive is Call to Renewal, a Christian anti-poverty alliance of evangelicals, liberal Protestants and Catholics of many ethnic backgrounds led by Jim Wallis. Potential partners in a coalition of conscience are numerous, both secular and religious in character. Broad coalitions tend to use diffuse languagespeaking in this case, of common good, social responsibility, human rights, stewardship and preferential option for the poor. Efforts to revive the anti-poverty energies of our nation should emphasize public-private partnerships, new commitments to job training, education, tax advantages and emergency assistance to poor families. In whatever way we speak of our concerns or whatever strategies we encourage, advocates of renewed national efforts against poverty will do well to emphasize the linkage between our nation’s twin desires: to secure our freedom and to use it wisely. Perhaps the terrorist attacks have shocked us out of our complacency regarding threats not only to peace, but to social justice as well.