November 7, 2019 | Vol. 6 No. 24
(This column published in print in the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder on 11/7/2019)
America can’t fix poverty until it stops hating poor people.
—John A. Powell and Arthur Brooks
Unwarranted assumptions about the quality of the character of the poor, or lack thereof, are part of the longstanding war on the poor. In general society has created imagery to villainize the poor…and, many times, this imagery is reinforced with overt racial themes and substantiated by more subtle overtones.
In the summer of 2017, I used this column to embark on a six-part series inspired by a single quote. That quote came from noted historian Rutger C. Bregman, who, during a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Talk declared, “Poverty isn’t a lack of character. It’s a lack of cash.” Others, before and since, have used similar language to talk about what poverty is, and for that matter, what it isn’t.
For instance, one of the more common refrains that has arisen, and that speaks directly to Bregman’s declaration, is that poverty is, in fact, “a math problem.” Just a few months ago, Bloomberg opinion columnist Noah Smith took this same tact in an essay titled, “Stop Blaming America’s Poor for Their Poverty.” Arguing in favor of a “strong social safety net,” Smith wrote:
Too many people fall through the cracks in the capitalist system because of unemployment, sickness, injury or other forms of back luck. And the market, on its own, simply doesn’t create enough well-paying jobs for everyone to be able to afford a comfortable lifestyle.
The very next day—writing in the National Review—Kevin D. Williamson not only attempts to debunk Smith’s piece (claiming that “almost none of his key claims are exactly true), but castigates Smith’s mental fortitude and writing skills for good measure.
Now, in all fairness to Williamson, he makes some insightful points about America’s past failures to deal with issues of poverty, homelessness, criminal justice, and mental health. Moreover, he talks of nuance and different variables that render people “poor for all sorts of reasons.”
Still, there is a strain of mean-spiritedness (as reflected in the personal shots he takes at Smith) that harkens back to the words of Margaret Thatcher, who more than four decades ago famously referred to what she saw as character and personality defects in in the poor. That kind of thinking continues to permeate the social and political landscape of our world, but no place more than right here in the United States.
Researchers John A. Powell and Arthur Brooks have cited a multitude of studies that demonstrate this, including one survey where the general consensus was that poor people were both unfriendly and incompetent. According to Powell and Brooks, “Americans, it seems, have a uniquely low opinion of poor people: We offer them neither our empathy nor our respect.”
This is precisely why two years ago I dedicated a six-part series to this subject and why we must continue to fight back against this hatred of the poor. We must change the blanket narrative that those in poverty are to blame for their own plight.
I’m particularly taken by a quote from Powell and Brooks who, when reflecting on the questions of character and morality (not to mention differences of opinion in ideology), state, “A competition of ideas is healthy. But it requires a deep moral consensus: a shared belief in the dignity of all people.”
The dignity of all people. Just deliberate on that for a moment.
The most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau tells us that there are approximately 38 million Americans living below the federal poverty line. However, as we have noted many times before that “line” is flawed. There are tens of millions among us, including those who toil in two or three jobs and still can’t make ends meet at the end of the work week.
As scholars, economists and others have revealed, roughly one-half of America’s 327 million people can be classified as economically insecure. This means they are one minor crisis from joining the “official” ranks of the poor.
Now, a little more than a decade ago, GiveMN was established to support Minnesota nonprofit organization and schools, fuelled by its mission to “ignite generosity and grow giving.” Its annual Give to the Max Day is this coming Thursday, November 14, 2019.
Charitable contributions are without question one of the ways that we reduce poverty. Volunteerism is yet another. That said, not everyone has the means to give. And, some may not have the time to volunteer.
Even if every one of us could help in one of these ways, I’m doubtful that would be enough to solve poverty. But that doesn’t keep us from trying.
As we set about solving the math problem that is poverty, we also must continue to proclaim with the utmost vigor and veracity that poverty is not a character flaw. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” And, if all one can do for another is treat them with dignity, then maybe, just maybe, that’s a good start.