Staunch Liberals Who Reinvent the Right Thing : Social policy: There’s a new war on poverty afoot, and at its heart are conservative ideas aimed at empowering the poor. Welfare bureaucrats, look out.

<i> Elaine Ciulla Kamarck is a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. </i>

If you go far enough to the left in American politics, you may bump into the right, and there you will find that America is on the verge of a new war on poverty. Leading it are people who never knew each other, let alone talked to one another.

Consider the case of Wisconsin state Rep. Annette Polly Williams. Williams, a black, has been poor most of her life. She still lives in the inner-city Milwaukee neighborhood where she raised four children, spent some time on welfare and finally, 20 years after graduating from high school, got her college degree.

A few weeks ago, Williams took on the entire liberal Establishment of Wisconsin by authoring a bill that would give poor parents in Milwaukee tuition vouchers for their children. Each family that qualified would receive $2,500 per child, which would be subtracted from the public school system’s budget. The vouchers could be used at any city school--public or private.

To the chagrin of the liberals, a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats made Williams’ bill the law.


Williams did not discover the voucher idea by reading tracts churned out by conservative think tanks. She simply concluded that when black parents wanted education for their children, the power structure gave them integration. What that amounted to was “magnet” schools to attract white students into the city and ridiculously long bus rides to take black children out of the city. While blacks wanted to “educate,” Williams said, the white power structure wanted to “integrate and transportat.”

Out of frustration, Williams “came up with an idea, and it turned out that what I was talking about was a voucher concept . . . People with money were always able to buy into an area with good schools.”

In Washington, D.C., the new war on poverty is being waged by Kimi Gray. Like Williams, Gray is a former welfare mother. She had the first of her five children at age 14 and has lived in public housing for much of her life. She is a leader in the movement to allow residents of public housing projects to buy their own apartments. To do this, she had to get a federal law changed and, in so doing, she hooked up with a conservative--Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp.

Like tuition vouchers, tenant ownership of public housing used to be a conservative idea. But in the hands of Gray and Williams, ideas that were conservative become something else entirely. Gray taught Kemp a thing or two about public housing; the bill that permits tenants to buy public housing contains provisions that would renovate the properties before sale and would reserve the properties for resale to moderate-income people. Thus, the conservative notion of privatization became a vehicle for empowerment.

In the hands of Williams, vouchers, which in the classic conservative version subsidized rich whites in private schools, were limited to families with incomes up to 175% of the poverty level, thus giving poor parents some of the choice that middle-class parents have. Says Gray, “Our theme is empowerment, empowerment of the people . . . .”

How well can poor people make choices for themselves? “Low-income black families,” said Williams, “know that the only way out is education . . . They (bureaucrats) honestly believe that poor families can’t make decisions.”

For both Williams and Gray, the enemy is not necessarily the right or the left; it is the welfare bureaucracy--a group referred to by Williams as “the poverty industry pimps--the people in the middle.” Both women complained that government money was going to the bureaucrats, not poor people.

Conservatives have been quick to celebrate and adapt to this new war on poverty. Stuart Butler, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation, has outlined a poverty strategy in the National Review: Reach an accommodation on civil rights, adopt a strategy of empowerment, attack the poverty industry and allow states to be the innovators of antipoverty policy.

“We are all registered Democrats,” responds Gray, “but we work very closely with Republicans because they’re the ones that seem to understand that we do not want to stay a poor and permanent underclass.”

Social policy is an inexact science. Some pieces of the original war on poverty were spectacular successes; others weren’t. But the new effort has to contend with a creation of the original--an entrenched establishment of middle-class people whose livelihood depends on the continuation of certain programs regardless of their effectiveness.

Polly Williams laughs at the idea that her voucher bill for 1,000 poor pupils is a threat to the public school system, but it is, she admits, a warning. Her message to the Milwaukee school system is a message that all big-city systems should hear: “It’s gonna make it better or it’s gonna dismantle it . . . If you all are worried about your jobs, try doing them better.”