Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Why a war on poor people?

poverty illinois

American conservatives for the past several decades have shown a remarkable hostility to poor people in our country. The recent effort to slash the SNAP food stamp program in the House (link); the astounding refusal of 26 Republican governors to expand Medicaid coverage in their states -- depriving millions of poor people from access to Medicaid health coverage (link); and the general legislative indifference to a rising poverty rate in the United States -- all this suggests something beyond ideology or neglect.

The indifference to low-income and uninsured people in their states of conservative governors and legislators in Texas, Florida, and other states is almost incomprehensible. Here is a piece in Bustle that reviews some of the facts about expanding Medicaid coverage:
In total, 26 states have rejected the expansion, including the state of Mississippi, which has the highest rate of uninsured poor people in the country. Sixty-eight percent of uninsured single mothers live in the states that rejected the expansion, as do 60 percent of the nation’s uninsured working poor. (link)
These attitudes and legislative efforts didn't begin yesterday. They extend back at least to the Reagan administration in the early 1980s. Here is Lou Cannon describing the Reagan years and the Reagan administration's attitude towards poverty:
Despite the sea of happy children’s faces that graced the “feel-good” commercials, poverty exploded in the inner cities of America during the Reagan years, claiming children as its principal victims. The reason for this suffering was that programs targeted to low-income families, such as AFDC, were cut back far more than programs such as Social Security. As a result of cuts in such targeted programs-including school lunches and subsidized housing-federal benefit programs for households with incomes of less than $10,000 a year declined nearly 8% during the Reagan first term while federal aid for households with more than $40,000 income was almost unchanged. Source: The Role of a Lifetime, by Lou Cannon, p. 516-17, Jul 2, 1991
Most shameful, many would feel, is the attempt to reduce food assistance in a time of rising poverty and deprivation. It's hard to see how a government or party could justify taking food assistance away from hungry adults and children, especially in a time of rising poverty. And yet this is precisely the effort we have witnessed in the past several months in revisions to the farm bill in the House of Representatives. In a recent post Dave Johnson debunks the myths and falsehoods underlying conservative attacks on the food stamp program in the House revision of the farm bill (link).

This tenor of our politics indicates an overt hostility and animus towards poor people. How is it possible to explain this part of contemporary politics on the right? What can account for this persistent and unblinking hostility towards poor people?

One piece of the puzzle seems to come down to ideology and a passionate and unquestioning faith in "the market". If you are poor in a market system, this ideology implies you've done something wrong; you aren't productive; you don't deserve a better quality of life. You are probably a drug addict, a welfare queen, a slacker. (Remember "slackers" from the 2012 Presidential campaign?)

Another element here seems to have something to do with social distance. Segments of society with whom one has not contact may be easier to treat impersonally and cruelly. How many conservative legislators or governors have actually spent time with poor people, with the working poor, and with poor children? But without exposure to one's fellow citizens in many different life circumstances, it is hard to acquire the inner qualities of compassion and caring that make one sensitive to the facts about poverty.

A crucial thread here seems to be a familiar American narrative around race. The language of welfare reform, abuse of food stamps, and the inner city is interwoven with racial assumptions and stereotypes. Joan Walsh's recent column in Salon (link) does a good job of connecting the dots between conservative rhetoric in the past thirty years and racism.  She quotes a particularly prophetic passage from Lee Atwater in 1982 that basically lays out the transition from overtly racist language to coded language couched in terms of "big government".

Finally, it seems unavoidable that some of this hostility derives from a fairly straightforward conflict of group interests. In order to create programs and economic opportunities that would significantly reduce poverty, it takes government spending -- on income and food support, on education, on housing allowances, and on public amenities for low-income people. Government spending requires taxation; and taxation reduces the income and wealth of households at the top of the ladder. So there is a fairly obvious connection between an anti-poverty legislative agenda and the material interests of the privileged in our economy.

These are a few hypotheses about where the animus to the poor comes from. But there is an equally important puzzle about the political passivity of the poor. It is puzzling to consider why the millions of people who are the subject of this hostility do not create a potent electoral block that can force significant changes on our political discourse. Why are poor people in Texas, Florida, and other non-adopting states not voicing their opposition to the governors and legislators who are sacrificing their health to a political ideology in the current struggles over Medicaid expansion?

Two factors seem to be relevant in explaining the political powerlessness of the poor. One is the gerrymandering that has reached an exact science in many state legislatures in recent years, with unassailable majorities for the incumbent party. This means that poor people have little chance of defeating conservative candidates in congressional elections. And second are the resurgent efforts that the Supreme Court enabled last summer to create ever-more onerous voting requirements, once again giving every appearance of serving the purpose of limiting voter participation by poor and minority groups. So conservative incumbents feel largely immune from the political interests that they dis-serve.

This topic hasn't gotten the attention it deserves in studies of American politics. One exception is the work of Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward. In Poor People's Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Failthey offer a powerful interpretation of the challenge of bringing poverty into politics.
Most poor people are "working poor" and are not homeless. But there are hundreds of thousands of homeless people in the United States, and their living conditions are horrible. Here is a powerful and humanizing album that captures some of the situation of homeless people in America. Give US Your Poor is worth listening to. Here is the title clip of the album:



Douglas Korty said...

I think race has a great deal to do with this. Most white people would be happy if they never had to deal with black people. Integration has failed. And poor whites are considered trailer trash, almost as bad as blacks. Many aspects of our media and culture reinforce these feelings. Great posting. Keep fighting.

Filip Spagnoli said...

Good points, but I personally think incentive theory is an important cause of the war on poor people, and of poverty: http://filipspagnoli.wordpress.com/2013/09/26/the-causes-of-poverty-72-unemployment-and-the-incentive-theory/

Dan said...

Thank you!!!
but really no explanation needed - it just needs to change. And ironically, this is an issue where you can have your cake and eat it too. We can all be wealthier, by paying for social safety nets.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps this information is hard to find, but I've often wonder why poor whites vote overwhelmingly Republican, which I think one could easily argue is against their own economic interests. They are much more concerned about what someone else is getting than what little they have or why that is the case.

Lee A. Arnold said...

"It is puzzling to consider why the millions of people who are the subject of this hostility do not create a potent electoral block that can force significant changes on our political discourse. "

Dan, half of the economists in the United States are unable to think clearly about the usefulness of short-term stimulus to fight the downturn, nor think clearly about the relatively benign aspect of future deficits. This is among educated professors. Given this intellectual debacle in the educated classes, how can we expect poor people to be educated and nimble enough to counterattack the broad assault of neoliberal nonsense thrown at them? Do you see that people are being made to BELIEVE that they deserve what is happening to them, whether it is good or ill? That billionaires deserve their billions, and that poor children deserve much, much less?

Let me turn it around: What do you think the causes of income inequality are? NOT the current causes of the increased inequality (e.g., gov't tax policy changes, capital-biased technological change, globalization, etc. etc.) They are a little different. But what are the basic causes of income inequality, prior to those? Is it luck, skills, etc?

If everybody had the same luck and skills, would incomes be equal? Or is there something else, is there a positional aspect to the distribution of incomes, a localized winner-take-all effect?

In other words, are there very different center-making structures, like 1) socio-political structures, 2) geographic centers, 3) mass manufacturing, and 4) financial markets, that all produce localized "centers" that can extract some of the surplus in the form of rents? Surplus that was generated by both a) specialization of labor and trade, and b) reduction of transformation/ transaction costs?

Because if there is, then the current subject of economics has barely scratched the surface of what needs to be done.

Anonymous said...

America, your Calvinist roots are showing again!

Cheryl said...

I totally agree, Doug. And thanks for sending me to this blog.

Anonymous said...

As Mararet Thacher won wisely said "Socialism works until you run out of other peoples money to spend". See what is happening in Greece, Italy and Spain. Our elites have created an underclass that they want dependent on them, so as to have control and their support. Once they don't need them anymore, or feel they cannot afford them anymore, or can't make money off of them, they will let them, they will foresake them.

Magpie said...


As yourself, I am puzzled by the "political powerlessness of the poor".

I understand that in the U.S. the situation of the poor has deteriorated much more than in Australia, where I live. Nonetheless, here we can see pretty much everything you mention.

That's why I believe the gerrymandering and the increased voting requirements cannot be the main cause of this apparent apathy: here those two things are virtually unknown.

There must be something else at play, but I don't know what.

Anonymous said...

If someone's basic assumption is faulty, all of the reasoning built upon it will be faulty. Here, I quote your assumption, stated in the form of a fact: "In order to create programs and economic opportunities that would significantly reduce poverty, it takes government spending -- on income and food support, on education, on housing allowances, and on public amenities for low-income people. Government spending requires taxation;..."
Your basic assumption that it takes government programs to do any of this is faulty. If you will just check the facts: since 1965 when LBJ launched our "War on Poverty," the federal government has spent over $10 TRILLION on exactly the kinds of programs that you say we need more of, to help the poor. After 47 years of fighting the war on poverty, no one recalls the promise that LBJ made: "We will eradicate poverty in this country by the end of the decade (1970)."
47 years and over $10 Trillion and the result? We now have more people in poverty than when we started, and now they are entrenched in systemic, multi-generational poverty that they will never emerge from. If we simply took the money thrown at the problem by the myriad of federal programs, everyone currently living in "poverty" would be a multi-millionaire instead of subsisting as they now do.
As opposed to your basic assumption, more government obviously is NOT the answer. Recent studies have shown that the average "poor" person living in America would have to have a job that paid more than $30,000 to replace all of the benefits that they are currently receiving from the government. And you wonder why we have high unemployment? Why would you want to work? If you work hard, they just take your earnings in taxes!
Many have logically decided that it is preferable to live off the system, and the efforts of others, than to work and produce and be penalized by the government.
More government subsidies are not the answer. Hunger is a great motivator. Take away the free ride and watch how many people living off of "entitlements" suddenly find themselves able to work.

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous (October 15, 2013 at 3:35 AM)

You challenge the author's assumptions. That's fair and legitimate.

You, too, advance your own assumption: "Many have logically decided that it is preferable to live off the system, and the efforts of others, than to work and produce and be penalized by the government."

In the passage above, you are making an eminently empirical claim. However, you offer no evidence whatsoever to support it. That's neither so fair, nor is it so legitimate.

This lack of support becomes more remarkable since you mentioned several figures (but not a single source!) against the author's contention; while you appear to consider the pronoun "many" precise enough.

From where I stand, the inexplicable absence of data in support of your claim looks like a double standards case.

After all, what's sauce for the goose, is sauce for the gander.

bakho said...

President Clinton was able to over come the stereotyping with his message of "Make Work Pay" and running the economy to create jobs. A majority agreed with the idea that those who work hard and play by the rules should have a living wage.

The Malefactors of Great Wealth don't want this. They like cheap labor. They don't want to pay taxes to achieve this goal. This is why Clinton was impeached and why the right hated Clinton when he was in office. Democrats have lost this message and the poor have suffered from too much focus on taxes and deficits and not enough focus on jobs, inequality and economic growth. - jonny bakho

Cervantes said...

Indeed anonymous @ 3:35. The unassailable, empirically verifiable fact is that right now, in the United States, there are not enough jobs for all the people who want one; and that many jobs that people do have do not pay enough for them to subsist without additional (government assistance). Lots of those people who get food stamps are working. Walmart even recommends that their employees get food stamps. These folks haven't logically decided that it is preferable to live off the efforts of others, nor are they penalized by the government for working. They are working. And lots of people who aren't working want to work. There aren't enough jobs.

Those are facts.

capitaclismo.com said...

When Spanish president Mariano Rajoy announced benefit cutbacks for the poor and the unemployed at the Spanish Parliament on July 2012, Andrea Fabra, representative for the conservative party PP, exclaimed at the very same Parliament: “¡Que se jodan!” ("Fuck'em!).

She was just showing what's the real and genuine spirit of neoliberal economics. Neoliberal economists speak Straussian speeches with cool sounding neo-words that in reality belong to the same and old academy: The Fuck ‘em School of Economics.


Connie Boyd said...

Here's another reason why poor people don't rise up politically: Poverty is exhausting. Working two or three minimum-wage jobs while scrambling to put together affordable child care and deal with emergencies like car repairs doesn't leave a lot of time for activism.

Anonymous said...

"Most white people would be happy if they never had to deal with black people. "

Please do not push your issues on the rest of the world. Your statement is very incorrect and racist.

Anonymous said...

Finally! Somebody has recognized this basic reason for the political impotence of the poor. The other big ones are ignorance and the widespread belief that the political system is rigged by the wealthy, and activism is futile.

Anonymous said...

The truly poor really rarely lead effective sustained social movements in advanced industrial societies. The question is what's preventing a mass of people made up of the lower-middle, middle, and upper-middle class from *decisively* turning against Republican and conservative policies that are neither in their short or long-term interest. Wouldn't even need to be anything amounting to revolution. Just decisively rejecting and delegitimizing GOP "answers" and "centrist" claptrap from incumbent out-of-touch media elites.

Rachel said...

Progressives in Congress should propose a CCC style jobs program. We have more than enough infrastructure that needs repairing and building. Let Conservatives try to defend their votes against creating jobs at the same time they condemn people for not working.

peter wolf said...

Excellent article. Got to you though Paul Krugman's citing. As a psychologist, I would add that part of the hostility to the poor has to do with a projection of unacceptable aspects of self onto the poor (made easier by seeing them all as Black- them not us). That includes the fear of experiencing normal emotional neediness (I am a rock, I am an island). We all need someone to lean on from time to time, and emotional support is the necessary base for building autonomy and independence (conservatives see them as opposites), but those who deny this need in themselves (while experiencing it unconsciously), need to find a target to hate that which they hate in themselves.

Anonymous said...

An enlightening stream of posts above; thank you to all who took the time to reply. I sit here on a Sat morning with my 17-year old daughter talking about these issues of wealth and poverty...not to burden her at an early age but to hopefully enlighten; not to strike fear but to instill the courage to think and act.

In my humble opinion, this is the central issue America is faced with today and will be for decades to come.

I, too, reject the slacker theory used in 2012. This explanation is a cop-out and enables the well-to-do to detach themselves from the reality of the problem. Yes, there are undoubtedly folks who have grown complacent with welfare but for those who rail against them, take a month and live with the working poor or those who depend on social welfare programs to eat; to live.

Is this causing more harm to the fabric of America or is it the inability of our government to develop policies and programs that can change this dynamic?

We have policies that support 85 billion dollars a month! (over how many years now?) in bond buying and easy credit for the large investment banks who then sell bonds to the US government. All to prop up the stock market and keep the wealthy happy with their capital gains tax advantages, etc. And this won't change until unemployment reaches 6.5%??? Sounds like a rigged system AGAINST adding jobs...besides, these people have jobs...what is their skin in the game? Where is the incentive to change? (Maybe have capital gains taxes raised and the difference goes directly to SNAP and other programs??) Here lies the ultimate hypocrisy. Actual policy that helps the well to do...and has created how many new jobs???

Sadly, with technology changing the employment landscape (fewer people-based retail jobs and even manufacturing), who sees a flood of jobs coming back? It will take ALL the baby-boomers retiring to open up employment opportunities, but how many jobs will be back filled? As the entitlement burden grows and grows something has to change. That change has to focus on putting people back to work and generating revenue.

JOBS! Tax reform! And leadership in DC. Where is the coalition of great Americans that can push aside the partisan reality-show and get things done? There are rational people out there who have answers and can promote compromise but they are unfortunately not in DC.

Anonymous said...

In Florida, as elsewhere, for the poor--no matter their race--it is almost impossible to survive without assistance, public or private. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, SNAP, housing and utility supplements, school lunches, free community clinics, and food banks are part of what is necessary to keep an often multigenerational family from becoming homeless. Most adults work or provide child care. There are no "welfare queens," black or while, just people trying to survive in the face of the mostly Republican state legislature and its reprehensible governor.

Anonymous said...

Well, take a look at how the Republican party has hijacked "Christianity" for their own in this country. The Republicans have made religion a huge focus of their party, by picking a couple very minor pet religious issues and blowing them up monstrously into major focuses, all as a distraction, just smoke to cloud what they are really up to. And somehow a large number of folks who claim to be Christian have been brainwashed through scare-tactics into abandoning the actual teachings of Jesus Christ and following the Republican party, because they are buying the nonsense that this is the party run by Christians. Few things matter more to some Americans than their money, guns, and religion, and the Republican party knows this and is using it the best they can, since the other portions of the population (the educated, non-religious, non-whites) are now firmly voting Democrat. The wealthy white have been working fervently to scare, manipulate, and divide this country, and it is working.

Anonymous said...

Doug, I agree with you - and many others do too!

Aravindh said...

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