MIT's Head of Urban Studies discusses poverty in America
Amy Glasmeier, Head of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT, discussed the crucial connection between geography and poverty within the United States at a recent talk at the Woodrow Wilson School.
Claiming that public policy measures to combat poverty have waned in the recent past, Glasmeier stated, “If you really look at the way in which we undertook public poverty policy, you’ll note that its lifespan was very short, and the public interest in it and its commitment to it was also very short,” she said.
Glasmeier pointed to recurrent themes over the past few decades that can be used to gain insight into poverty trends. “In some ways, poverty is very intractable, and yet we come back around to the same sets of issues without really taking account of what we’ve learned from another time, she said. “If you look over 50 years, given that the rhetoric is so similar, where can we place poverty policy today?”
The first region to be used as an example of poverty in America by politicians was Appalachia, and this, Glasmeier asserted, had a great deal to do with the personal politics of John F. Kennedy, who was running for president at the time. “There is a relationship between poverty and presidential elections in the United States,” she said. “What Kennedy was doing was preparing himself for running for president, but he’s also arguing that the policies aren’t big enough, they’re not focused enough, and they’re definitely not calibrated enough to deal with the kinds of problems that Appalachia had.”
Glasmeier stated further that America’s current view of regional poverty is in large part based on the highly publicized example of Appalachia in the 1960’s. This, she claimed, has much to do with the language used in the dialogue about the region.
“The fact that Appalachia was the beginning of the national discourse around poverty, I believe, has a significant implication for what ultimately ends up being poverty policy and also the attitudes about whether or not we can resolve poverty in the United States because of terms like white, poor, isolated, illiterate, unemployed,” she said.
Tracing the course of public policy over the past 50 years, Glasmeier observed that, starting with Kennedy’s visit and extending through Johnson’s Great Society policies and beyond, there was a great and growing disparity between what was considered ideal and what was considered profitable in terms of dealing with poverty.
“By the late 1960s the federal government and the public had lost their stomach for poverty policy,” she said. “There was sense the Great Society was too costly, that it had not made enough of a dent in the problems we were trying to deal with, and there was a beginning sense of retreat.”
This does not, however, mean that the Great Society policy moves against poverty were entirely without merit, Glasmeier contended.
“It is interesting that even as people were criticizing the Great Society programs, there were people who spoke of the value of the policies for the impact that they did have,” she said. “Though I would argue that they were not sufficiently carefully calibrated to adjust for the differences in places nor were they persistent enough to really have a sustained impact in many of these places.”
According to Glasmeier, the politics of dealing with poverty became worse in the 1970s, as public opinion shifted further and further towards the personal responsibility of the poor person for his own poverty.
“We begin to see by the 1970s a reframing of the popular debate, completely away from the sense that we as a nation this is something we as a nation can’t withstand or choose to overcome to a belief that the people who are poor are not living up to American ideals, she said. “I think that by 1974 it was clear that the nation had lost its courage.”
Public opinion of poverty, Glasmeier asserted, grew increasingly negative in the following decades, and her view of the current situation remains bleak.
“I would say that the current period is not a very propitious time for people interested in the poor in the United States,” she said. “If you look at the history of poverty policy over the last 50 years, you see that there is a reduction in interest in the poor as the economic business cycle goes negative.”
Glasmeier expressed hope however, that because the basic problems of poverty have remained unchanged, policymakers will be able to move into the future with a clearer idea of how to resolve these issues on a more specific and effective level.
“Many of the kernels of what we understood starting in the 1960s still apply today,” she said. “And the biggest difference between the 1960s and today is that we can actually look at problems at a much more refined level than ever before and really treat them in a surgical way, rather than making blanket policies.”