2007 07 31
Caveat Brooks-Reader

Today David Brooks writes:

Edwards would create a million housing vouchers for working families. These would, he argues, ”enable people to vote with their feet to demand safe communities with good schools.” They’d help people move to where the jobs are and foster economic integration.

The problem with his approach is that past efforts at dispersal produced disappointing results. Families who were given the means to move from poor neighborhoods to middle-class areas did not see incomes rise. Girls in those families did a little better, but boys did worse. They quickly formed subcultures in the new communities that replicated patterns of the old ones. Male criminality rose, but test scores did not.

I wonder which studies he submitted to the NYT fact-checkers to support this claim? Here’s what I’ve read:

This has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) through its Moving To Opportunity (MTO) experiment, in which it was found that residents moving from poverty-stricken neighborhoods into more affluent areas saw positive health results. The MTO program was an ambitious experiment by HUD, building on the famous Gautreaux litigation and the emerging concept that deconcentrating poverty is the most efficient way to improve the lives of the poor. The Gautreaux families were dispersed throughout the Chicago area and when freed from the harms of concentrated poverty, they were much more likely to be employed, their children did better in school, and they were generally safer. (Myron Orfield, “Segregation and Environmental Justice” (pdf), Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology 147 (2005).

But Brooks tells me otherwise. What ever shall I believe?

UPDATE: Thanks to Aaron in the comments for pointing to this post by Ezra Klein in which Klein praises this Brooks column. Klein points to this set of studies on the Moving to Opportunity program that seems to confirm some of Brooks’s worries. It does appear that the results from Gautreaux were more promising in many ways than were those for MTO. Indeed, MTO was inspired by the successes of Gautreaux, which are listed summarily by Orfield in the quotation I provided in the original post.

The researchers are still unsure, but they suggest that the differences between Gautreaux and MTO may be the result of the fact that Gautreaux was a court-ordered deconcentration of poverty for certain designated families, whereas MTO involved families chosen by random assignment.

In any case, there are three follow-up points I’d like to make.

First, the results of MTO are still good. It’s not that girls do so much better and that boys regress. The finding is “that boys in the experimental group fared no better or worse on measures of risk behavior than their controlgroup counterparts.” And while the experimental groups do not seem to have fared better economically–something that is truly puzzling–all studies point to a general enhancement of mental health for participants. The researchers that Klein cites conclude, “These adult mental health benefits may have important spillover benefits, particularly to children, since children have been found to have more problems in school and more behavior problems when their mothers are experiencing mental health problems.” The moral is that it is not at all clear that the benefits associated with Gautreaux and MTO, especially the mental health benefits, would be inferior tools in the fight against poverty when compared with the face-to-face counseling that Brooks favors. There does not seem to be enough data to compare these, so the results of MTO and the promised results of projects like the Harlem Children’s Zone do not seem capable of making the case for Obama and against Edwards.

Second, Gautreaux and MTO relied on the use of housing vouchers to re-situate participant families, and it is likely that if more sweeping legislation were to be drawn up, it would involve an expansion of the Section 8 housing voucher program. However, a recent case in Maryland County Court may work its way up the judicial ladder–or spawn similar rulings in other states–and undermine the voucher program. Ruling that Montgomery County cannot force a landlord to accept the vouchers, County Circuit Judge Durke G. Thompson wrote “Simply put, the county cannot force the landlord to enter into a contract with the federal government where the landlord is unable to negotiate the terms. That is beyond the scope of the county’s power.” If the conservative courts, especially the Supreme Court, gets ahold of this case, it could be curtains for what Brooks is labeling the Edwards plan.

Lastly, there is something that Edwards has that Obama does not, and that is a freedom from Robert Rubin and the Clinton wing of the Democratic party. Rubin (among others) advised Clinton to shove NAFTA down the throats of Clinton’s base before tackling health care–thereby emptying labor unions’ lobbying coffers even before the fight for universal health care began. There have been reports of Obama’s connections to Rubinomics, including his support for the new centrist Hamilton Project. It is not at all clear whether Obama is willing to use the power of the federal government to invest in poor communities and, even more importantly, move toward a full employment that puts the breaks on trade agreements that undermine poor and middle class American families.

Despite entering the fray of inter-Democratic party politics, Brooks’s line is the standard conservative line: blame the “culture of poverty” that pervades Black communities and impedes economic success. This is why he likes the face-to-face aspect he claims to find in the Obama-preferred Harlem Children’s Zone. But this culture of poverty argument was put decisively to rest by Algernon Austin and Jared Bernstein in response to similar causal arguments forwarded recently by Bill Cosby. Austin and Bernstein write:

Black poverty fell 10.6 percentage points from 1993 to 2000 (from 33.1 to 22.5 percent) to reach its lowest level on record. Black child poverty fell an unprecedented 10.7 percentage points in five years (from 41.9 percent in 1995 to 31.2 percent in 2000).

The “culture of poverty” argument cannot explain these trends. Poor black people did not develop a “culture of success” in 1993 and then abandon it for a “culture of failure” in 2001.

What really happened was that in the 1990s, the job market finally tightened up to the point where less-advantaged workers had a bit of bargaining clout. The full-employment economy offered all comers opportunities conspicuously absent before or since.

Right now, if you want to bet on an economic policy that would support movements toward sustainable full employment–the Clinton boom of the 1990s, while reducing poverty, was generated by the stock market bubble which eventually burst to the detriment of many–then you bet on Edwards. Even without the tools used in Gautreuax and MTO, Edwards’s policy bag includes major economic policy tools that make conservatives like Brooks, and neoliberals like Rubin, shudder. The ills of poverty cannot be successfully fought with location-specific programs such as those favored by conservatives like Brooks. In fact, this is precisely why conservatives like Brooks favor such policies. They want to blame Black culture and take the focus off grander economic causes. Then, when face-to-face counseling for those in poverty fails to eliminate the ills of living in concentrated poverty, they can throw up their hands, having already dispatched the arguments in favor of more radical and sweeping measures.

While I’m still more confident that Edwards is more willing to buck the Clintonite/Rubin anti-populism in favor of moving toward sustainable full employment, there are heartening developments in the Obama camp. So I’m remaining open-minded. Obama is still very much a work in progress. But until he commits fully to rejecting Rubinomics–which means rejecting the austere and ineffective policy menu that Brooks claims to find in Obama’s proposals–I’ll stick with Edwards.

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