In 2013, poverty is no longer exclusively or even mainly a problem of racial injustice. The factors that deny opportunity to poor blacks — bad schools, underfunded public services, broken families and a criminal-justice system that too often forgets what justice means — affect all poor people.
It’s at least worth asking whether the country would make better progress in righting these wrongs by talking a bit less about race and a bit more about class. As the Brookings Institution’s Isabel Sawhill puts it, “If we were once two countries, one black and one white, we are now increasingly becoming two countries, one advantaged and one disadvantaged.”
The best way to help poor families is to help them get jobs and to ensure that work pays. Securing and sustaining the strongest possible economic recovery would help. This requires continued monetary accommodation and a more intelligent fiscal policy — less short-term tightening and more attention to long-term consolidation. When it comes to labor markets, the United States already has a suitable policy in the earned income tax credit, a subsidy paid to low-income workers. The credit is good, but it could stand some improving. It needs to be made simpler (two- thirds of families claiming it pay tax-preparers for help). It should treat childless workers more generously. And despite a series of tweaks it still involves a marriage penalty — hardly conducive to stable households.
School reform is a sprawling agenda in its own right, but it would be hard to overstate its importance. Inequities in district-by-district school funding need to be addressed. Excellent teachers should be paid more to work in schools serving poor children. Vouchers and other methods should be used to empower parents and force schools to compete.
The country’s insane devotion to incarceration strips families and neighborhoods of fathers and potential breadwinners. It’s true — and scandalous — that this injustice falls disproportionately on blacks, but the policy is wrong, first and foremost, because it is a travesty of justice to lock people up for years for nonviolent offenses. Recently Eric Holder, the U.S. attorney general, announced changes in prosecution policy that should help a little, but the issue requires new laws to roll back mandatory minimum sentences and hold prosecutors accountable. Americans should see the present system as an assault on the rights of all, not just on one racial group.
What goes for criminal justice applies to most other areas of social policy as well. It will be a long time, if ever, before the U.S. can be entirely colorblind. But things have changed. In 1963, race-based policies were a moral imperative: Rising to King’s challenge required them. In 2013, they’re an ambiguous ally, at best, in making his dream a reality.
Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist.