The Bonfires Of The Vanities: Then And Now

POLICY - Years before his 1987 best-seller, The Bonfire of the Vanities chronicled New York society and politics, novelist Tom Wolfe chronicled another venue of political theatre and vanities bonfire: the anti-poverty programs funded under the federal government’s War on Poverty.

In 1970, Wolfe spent time at the Office of Economic Opportunity in San Francisco, and among anti-poverty activists and their supporters at the area universities and political left. His lengthy essay “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” would be published the following year along with “Radical Chic”—codas for the era’s fantasies about the poor.

The anti-poverty vanities that Wolfe describes are those of poverty bureaucrats, professors at San Francisco State and their middle class students, and the community anti- poverty entrepreneurs. The poverty bureaucrats pride themselves on their connections to street activists, while the professors and their students pride themselves on their virtue and solidarity with the poor. The community entrepreneurs are the most clear sighted: their eyes were set on the enormous sums of money coming out of the federal government for job training, summer jobs, “Going downtown to mau-mau the bureaucrats got to be the routine practice in San Francisco,” Wolfe writes of the anti-poverty entrepreneurs. “The poverty program encouraged you to go in for mau-mauing. They wouldn’t have known what to do without it. The bureaucrats at City Hall and in the Office of Economic Opportunity talked ‘ghetto’ all the time, but they didn’t know any more what was going on in the Western Addition, Hunters Point, Potrero Hill, the Mission, Chinatown or south of Market Street than they did about Zanzibar. They didn’t know where to look. They didn’t even know who to ask. So what could they do? 

“They sat back and waited for you to come rolling in with your certified angry militants, your guaranteed frustrated ghetto youth, looking like a bunch of wild men. Then you had your test confrontation. If you were outrageous enough, if you could shake up the bureaucrats so bad that their eyes froze into iceballs and their mouths twisted up into smiles of sheer physical panic…then they knew you were the real goods. They knew you were the right studs to give the poverty grants and community organizing jobs to. Otherwise they wouldn’t know.”

“Chaser” formed a group in the Western addition, the Youth Coalition, and was one of the main actors in Wolfe’s telling. 

“Then Chaser would say, ‘Now when we get there, I want you to come down front and stare at the man and don’t say nothing. You just glare. No matter what he says. He’ll try to get you to agree with him. He’ll say ‘Ain’t that right’…’you know what I mean’ and he wants you to say yes or nod your head…see…It’s part of his psychological jiveass. But you don’t say nothing. You just glare.”

Wolfe’s New Journalism account mixes fact and fiction, and is not meant as reporting or academic analysis, or the complete story. But Wolfe does capture central elements of the 1960s and early 1970s anti-poverty world, in ways that social scientists and journalists did not: the lack of accountability for the money doled out, the absence of any expectations of results, and how little of the money actually found its way into the hands of low income people or into efforts that actually benefited low income people.

This anti-poverty world in San Francisco had shifted by the time I arrived in the fall of 1979 at a community job training group in the Mission, Arriba Juntos. The confrontations had been abandoned, the firehose of free money dried up. The surviving anti-poverty groups were ones that had adapted by becoming more business-like and focused on results. At Arriba Juntos, the executive director subscribed to the Wall Street Journal, and partnered with the city’s largest corporations and labor unions. 

I had read Wolfe’s essay, and sought out the anti-poverty activists profiled. They were no longer in the spotlight, some of their groups had ended and others shrunk to a small presence. Yet, most of these activists were still in San Francisco, and welcoming to someone who wanted to listen to their versions of the War on Poverty.

Thomadra Scott (“Chaser”), had come to San Francisco in the late 1950s, after twenty years as a merchant seaman. He drove a cab, and started volunteering as a youth counselor, organizing a youth group, The Young Adults, based in the Western Addition. The group was engaged in various good works projects (food drives for the hungry, a book club, assisting seniors) until the War on Poverty arrived, and the group took on a different activism. 

By 1979, the Office of Economic Opportunity had been reduced to a staff of fewer than ten, in a rundown building on Hayes and Octavia. Scott had a cubicle in the back of the building, where he worked as a youth counselor. Now no longer in the spotlight, Scott spent a good deal of time as a volunteer with youth who lacked family supports— “I’m the father, grandfather, or uncle that they never had”, he would say. Wolfe portrays Scott as the poverty hustler, but in reality Scott never took money for himself, lived modestly, and likely would have accomplished more if not sidetracked by the War on Poverty.


Today in San Francisco and statewide in California, we in the job training and related social service systems pride ourselves on shedding the 1960s dramas and confrontation. We are “following the science”, with reporting of metrics, appeals to “evidence-based practices”, and formal program data collecting and evaluation reports. Overall, this is an improvement from the 1960s—though as in other fields of public policy the science is far less exact than claimed.

Further, we have our own set of vanities, even if we might be slow to acknowledge them. With the hubris that we can come up with big ideas and grand solutions to “end poverty”, we embrace and fund:

*A new generation of poverty entrepreneurs, often college educated, who peddle “advocacy” or “system building” or “community engagement” projects. All of these projects are distinguished by the fact that they don’t place anyone in a job, or help any individual business, or have any real outcomes. But they do provide middle class salaries and above for their staff. In the 1960s, the job of choice was a job at the anti-poverty agency itself, for the pay was decent and the jobs demanded little beyond talk. Some things never change. 

*A new generation of university faculty who like the former generation of university faculty romanticize the poor and draw up anti-poverty schemes, far removed from lived experiences. They’ve been joined by comfortable staff at think tanks funded by the tech aristocracy—an aristocracy, the new masters of the universe, confident that they can translate their tech success into success in ending poverty.

*A new movement of guaranteed income advocates, also funded by the tech aristocracy, who tout their innovative strategy of sending money directly to the poor. It’s true that still too little of the anti-poverty money finds its way into the hands of the poor. But the guaranteed income schemes (among their other defects), ignore the central truth of the War on Poverty and subsequent poverty programs: any anti- poverty strategy starts with some forms of work expectations and jobs, not guaranteed income.

If we’ve learned anything in fifty years, it is that employment is the starting point. This is the lesson brought home by the fine detailed studies by MDRC and other leading research groups, as well as the leading anti-poverty practitioners, such as America Works. Any income supports, such as tax credits/direct wage subsidies, food stamps, or housing supports, are built around the work expectations and jobs. 

Last month, a report by a research team at Child Trends, using data from Columbia University's Center on Poverty and Social Policy reported that child poverty fell by 59 percent between 1993 and 2019. As economist Scott Winship notes in his research review, this is huge accomplishment, and one that has been identified in phases by other researchers over the past decade.

Advocacy groups, university faculty and guaranteed income proponents already are using this study to justify their schemes of welfare state expansion. Yet, as Winship demonstrates, while increased safety net payments played a significant role in the poverty decrease, the main driver was an increase in employment earnings and other pre-transfer income of low income families. As most Americans would predict, child poverty rates went down as welfare reform and other child support and work-based expectations/policies brought more low income households into the employment mainstream. 

It would be good to think that studies like this would help bring more sensible policies to the current anti-poverty debates. However, in the more than four decades I’ve been involved in local employment programs aimed at the poor, I haven’t seen many activists in the field change their minds. The anti-poverty vanities usually have deeper roots, not easily reached by data or evidence. They are tied to the individual’s own psychological needs, not the realities or needs of the poor—as Tom Wolfe illustrated fifty years ago.

(Michael Bernick is the former California Employment Development Department director, and today is Counsel with the international law firm of Duane Morris LLP, a Milken Institute Fellow, and adjunct faculty at Stanford University. My newest book is The Autism Full Employment Act (2021). This article was originally featured in Forbes.com.)   Photo:  American author and journalist Tom Wolfe (1930 – 2018), in 1965, a few years before he would come to San Francisco to profile the anti-poverty programs of the War on Poverty. BEN MARTIN/GETTY IMAGES