Oversell

By

From Poverty to Dignity
By Charles Hampden-Turner
(Doubleday; $8.95)

The Great Society programs of the ‘60s, Daniel Patrick Moynihan remarked in his Politics of the Guaranteed Annual Income, were “oversold and underfinanced” to the point that their failure seemed almost to have been a matter of design. Such overselling, Hampden-Turner’s new book makes clear, is not confined to the Establishment Center. It can occur on the Left as well.

I do not like making a negative judgment on this book, subtitled “A Strategy for Poor Americans,” for I share many Hampden-Turner’s values, particularly his anti-racism. I am impressed by his analysis of the way white supremacy is imposed upon blacks, but not always by the sociologese in which he communicates his insights. I too feel that community development corporations (CDC) have a significant contribution to make to the battle against poverty. Yet Hampden-Turner presents these excellent thoughts and attitudes within a context of over-kill and oversell, thereby undercutting his own case. Two instances should make clear what I mean.

For Hampden-Turner it is the “official PERCEPTION of the Welfare Establishment that social problems resulted from individual deficiencies of poor people.” Moynihan concentrated on the “pathology” of the black family in his famous report to President Johnson. And in any case, the "purpose of the Moynihan report was to wrest initiative away from the disadvantaged and restore it to President Johnson." Therefore "the failures of middle-class dissent and of poverty wars are traceable to a reluctance to institutionalize and incorporate alternative structures." The CDCs are at the center of a property and counter-institutional strategy.

This analysis is, I think, demonstrably one-sided. There are certainly serious deficiencies in the theory and practice of the welfare establishment. But it is simply not true particularly if one grants Moynihan such a prominent place in itthat this establishment thought that "social problems resulted from individual deficiencies of poor people." Moynihan, Willard Wirtz and the rest of those who shared the Department of Labor's view in this matter always emphasized the connection between unemployment and welfare and fought for collective solutions to a socially defined problem. And the alternative to the Moynihan-Wirtz approach, which received considerable support from HEW and the Council of Economic Advisors in the early days of the war on poverty and was incorporated into the Economic Opportunity Act, was community action, i.e., an attempt to mobilize the poor as a group.

Indeed, in some of Moynihan's writings in the period of his famous report, and in Lyndon Johnson's Howard commencement speech in 1964, there is explicit argumentation for "equality of result" as against "equality' of opportunity," hardly an individualistic way of looking at the issue. It is also conspiratorial thinking to see the Moynihan report as a sinister ploy "to wrest initiative away from the disadvantaged." In 1964, I am afraid, the disadvantaged, with the exception of the Southern blacks led by Martin Luther King, Jr., did not have the advantage. It was a peculiarity of the entire war on poverty that it did not, by far and largethe exception is once again King's movementstart as a result of pressure from below. Johnson's speech at Howard turns out to have been the most social and structural analysis of the problem of racism ever to have been made by an American President.

In saying these things I am not trying to make a brief for Moynihan or Johnson. I have been public in my disagreement with their policies. I am suggesting that intellectual overkill in this area tends to make people suspicious of everything else you write. The really interesting question about the '60s, which Hampden-Turner does not even raise, is why decent, sincere and intelligent men, who tried to develop a social response to poverty, failed. To deal with that issue requires a subtle reading of      complex factsan understanding of how social structure overwhelms good intentionsnot a thesis of conspiracy.

Unfortunately the polemical oversimplifications of analysis in this book lead to overly simple solutions. It is true that the         abolition of      poverty requires      structural change. It is also true that CDCs, in which poor people organize and produce goods and services on their own, are one means of pursuing that goal. But are CDCs the way out? Do they contain the potential of transforming the plight of the poor and the black? I think not.

Hampden-Tumer writes:

Once CDCs are into the business of book clubs, publishing houses, record companies and speaker's bureaus, the tens of thousands       of liberal artists and writers can put their careers where their mouths areso that audiences are moved emotionally and economically on behalf of the poor... Films or video cassettes made by residents to explain particular experiences, techniques and dramas... could be sold to universities, social agencies and public television. A CDC could run a Social Justice Book Club, pressing those authors who hawk their social conscience to waive royalties on books sold to the club and encouraging their publishers to be similarly generous.

All this adds up to “social marketing” which "pays CDC members for treating each other with justice and consideration." But, and this is the crucial problem, with such a grandiose scheme, these CDCs must exist in a capitalist society in which profit, not social utility, is the pervasive criterion of economic life. One is going to sell those films to universities, social agencies and public televisionall of which are currently suffering from a lack of money and are looking for handouts, not handing out. I am sure that writers "who hawk their social conscience" would waive royalties for a CDC book club (we already do for braille editions), but if that book club became as successful as Hampden-Turner imagines (and therefore the bulk of royalties would have been waived), who would pay the writers so as to keep them from becoming welfare cases? And finally, isn't it predictable that, within this social structure, if any CDC approached Hampden-Turner's ideal of functioning, it would be taken over by some conglomerate? That, after all, has already happened to established, solvent publishing houses.

Instead of overselling the CDC idea, I think Hampden-Turner should have properly said that such local initiatives can perform an important, if limited, service. For the structural changes really requireda redistribution of wealth, including the massive allocation of resources to job generation, housing and medicinego far beyond the CDC principle. He oversells the CDCs because he does not understand that socialism in one neighborhood, or even among all the poor, is not possible in the richest capitalist society in history.

This article originally ran in the July 20, 1974 issue of the magazine.

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