James Thwinda has a great post up at In These Times about “Why Conservatives Can’t Fix Poverty.” He zeroes in on Newt Gingrich as the prime example of the contemporary conservative approach to poverty, debunks the right’s “distorted characterization of poor people,” and rightly point out that the very conservative policies Gingrich and his fellow conservative champion actually make the problem worse.
I would add only one thing, and it addresses ideology. Conservatives can’t fix poverty, because conservatives don’t want to fix poverty. For the same reason that Republicans never even attempted health care reform when they controlled the House, the Senate, and the White House. From a conservative perspective, poverty isn’t the real problem. Poor people are.
As Jim Wallis is among the latest to note, we’ve come a long way from “compassionate conservatism.” In 1964, Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty. Forty-seven years later, to listen to the leading lights of the Republican party, conservatives have declared war on poor. In truth, as Frances Fox Piven wrote last month, the war on the poor started around the same time as the war on poverty, and the latest numbers on poverty tell us which war — the war on poverty or the war on the poor — is now closest to being won. Thus, conservatives are anxious to go in for the kill, and in their sites are the some of the popular Johnson-era programs aimed at helping the poor.
Poverty Is Not the Problem
Almost two years ago, I wrote about a major difference between progressives and conservatives on health care. What I wrote then, seems to apply to Gingrich and conservatives like him when it comes to poverty.
The difference depends on what you believe concerning health care. Is it an injustice that millions of Americans have little or no access to quality, affordable health care? Or is it merely unfortunate?
It depends on whether you believe health care is a right. It’s a generalization, but not too much of one, to say that progressives — many or most — believe that health care is a right; or, more specifically, that access to quality, affordable health care is a right. This makes health care a human rights or civil rights issue. It means that a system in which millions are without access to care is an unjust system.
What if you don’t believe that health care is a right? If you don’t believe that health care is a right, then it is not a human rights or civil rights issue. It means that millions of Americans being without health care is not an injustice. It may be unfortunate, but it’s not an injustice.
Likewise with poverty, as Thindwa writes, Gingrich and his fellow conservatives are quick to cast poverty as moral problem — more specifically, as a problem of individual moral character — rather than a systemic problem. Of course, Gingrich’s examples don’t fly with reality. Several people have debunked his assertion that children in poor neighborhoods “have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works so they have no habit of showing up on Monday.” Rev. Jesse Jackson is among the most recent.
This is ugly and stupid stuff. In fact, most poor people work every day that they can. And 83 percent of all poor children live in households with at least one adult who works. Their parents often work two or three jobs to support the family. Poor working parents work longer hours on average than their wealthier counterparts, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
When you visit a fast-food restaurant, those are poor youth working the trays, without health benefits. The vendors at the ball games are mainly poor and without benefits. When LSU and Alabama play the big bowl game, we’ll be watching players from mainly poor backgrounds, “working/playing” without wages.
Our military consists mainly of youth from poor backgrounds — like Shoshanna Johnson and Jessica Lynch, our all-volunteer armed services that are the pride of the nation.
Newt Gingrich has it all wrong.
The not-so-hidden assumption in Gingrich’s slur is that he’s talking about urban poverty and black and Hispanic kids. Actually, poverty is worse in rural areas than in cities or suburbs. Worse in Appalachia than in Chicago. More poor children are white than black.
None of this matters to conservatives who, for all their talk of a “culture of poverty,” adhere to a “culture of belief” in which what you believe is more important than what you know. For Gingrich and conservatives like him, poverty isn’t the problem because their beliefs enable them to rationalize away problems like poverty or economic inequality. It’s a symptom of what, back in 2008, I called “complacent conservatism.”
I’m sure this has been covered by everyone and his brother, but I couldn’t help being amused by this study suggesting that conservatives are happier than liberals. But before any conservatives start gloating, there’s another thing to consider.
Being happy is a cinch, if you can rationalize not caring much about injustice and inequality.
Regardless of marital status, income or church attendance, right-wing individuals reported greater life satisfaction and well-being than left-wingers, the new study found. Conservatives also scored highest on measures of rationalization, which gauge a person’s tendency to justify, or explain away, inequalities.
The rationalization measure included statements such as: “It is not really that big a problem if some people have more of a chance in life than others,” and “This country would be better off if we worried less about how equal people are.”
To justify economic inequalities, a person could support the idea of meritocracy, in which people supposedly move up their economic status in society based on hard work and good performance. In that way, one’s social class attainment, whether upper, middle or lower, would be perceived as totally fair and justified.
If your beliefs don’t justify gaps in status, you could be left frustrated and disheartened, according to the researchers, Jaime Napier and John Jost of New York University. They conducted a U.S.-centric survey and a more internationally focused one to arrive at the findings.
That rationalization, as it relates to poverty and economic inequality, is key to what George Lakoff defined as the conservative worldview.
Worldly success is an indicator of sufficient moral strength; lack of success suggests lack of sufficient discipline. Dependency is immoral. The undisciplined will be weak and poor, and deservedly so.
… The role of government is to: * Promote unimpeded competitive economic activity so that both the disciplined moral people and the undisciplined immoral ones are able to receive what they each deserve, based on their own choices; … The Economy and Business: Promoting unimpeded economic activity means favoring those who control wealth and power, who are seen as the “best people,” over those who are unsuccessful, who are seen as morally weak. Corporations are more heavily favored than non-corporate businesses, because big businesses (like wealthy people) have gotten big precisely through working hard and being disciplined.
That’s why conservatives can’t’ fix poverty. They don’t want to fix poverty.
Poor People Are The Problem
Conservatives don’t want to fix poverty, because poverty isn’t the problem. The problem is poor people and their immoral ways.
Mix it all up together, stick it in an oven until it’s half-baked, and you end up with an ideology that people will eat up with both hands if they have any economic strength, or hope to have any because they are sure of their moral virtue and know they will be justly rewarded (even if it means buying another lottery ticket or two), because it at once elevates and absolves them. It elevates them above others who have less (or whom they deem less moral), and absolves them of helping the great many of the poor because the poor are right were they deserve to be. Heaven has mandated it so.
I didn’t say it made sense or that it holds together, just that an awful lot of people happily swallow it whole. Once they do it’s easy to see things as portrayed above and accept it as not just reality but as the way things ought to be.
If you accept all that, then depending on charities to deliver services to the poor isn’t “punishing the good guy.” The good guy has all he needs to take care of himself and his, and if he decides to reinvest his tax cut rather than donate it to charity, that’s his business. Besides, who are we to question the righteous?
And it doesn’t matter that charities will not be able to deliver the same level services to the same amount of people as the government, because the whole idea is that there will be fewer services, and there should be fewer services. The government may be able to help more people, but the problem is that it will inevitably help people who shouldn’t be helped. So less help is better, even some of the folks who may deserve it don’t get it. After all, if they were better people the wouldn’t’ need services in the first place.
In that light, it actually makes sense that conservatives like Gingrich advocate policies that ultimately punish the poor — by cutting vital programs and services, while simultaneously raising taxes on the poor and the working poor — and reward the wealthy with even more wealth via tax cuts, etc.
The better off are better off because they’re better people. The poor are poor because of poor morals, or poor character. Thus Gingrich and his fellow conservatives stereotype poor Americans as lazy and even criminal. This fantasy not only ignores the very existence of the working poor, it ignores that the working poor make up the majority of Americans living in poverty, that many middle class Americans are “near poor.” It ignores that one in three working families in America are low income, and that most of the jobs created in this “recovery” are low-income.
This fantasy allows conservatives to ignore that the working poor have been hit the hardest in this recession.
The report details how “the backbone of our economy” is weakening due to neglect, as these working families struggle with a recession in which more than half (55%) of the workforce has “suffered a spell of unemployment, a cut in pay, a reduction in hours or have become involuntary part-time workers” since the recession began in December 2007.” For the working poor — whose numbers grew by nearly a quarter of a million just between 2008 and 2009 — the recession has made tough circumstances even tougher.
- According to the report, many joined the ranks of the unemployed or dropped out of the workforce, while others saw their incomes drop as businesses cut back due to the recession.
- The men in these families have faired particularly badly, as many worked in the now shrunken manufacturing, construction, and financial sectors. Meanwhile, the percentage of working women with an unemployed husband doubled from 2.4% to 5.4% between 2007 and 2009, meaning that in a growing number of working families women (who earn less, on average, than men) are now the primary breadwinners.
- In an economy where finding a good job with decent wages and benefits requires a college degree (by 2018, 63% of all job openings will require some level of secondary education), nearly a third of working families had at least one parent without a high school diploma. In more than half (52%), neither parent had a high school diploma.
Needless to say, all of the above goes double for racial and ethnic minorities.
It allows conservatives to ignore the reality that the poor do indeed pay taxes, label them “lucky duckies,” and make thing tougher for them having them pay federal income taxes on top of state and local taxes, income taxes and deductions for Social Security, Medicare, etc. — thus ensuring that the working poor keep even less of what little they already earn.
Thindwa touches upon the major difference between progressives and conservatives on poverty issues, and in doing so echoes George Lakoff’s point about progressives’ tendency towards systemic thinking and conservatives’ seeing only direct causation.
When a system has causal effects, as in the above cases, we speak of “systemic causation.” “Systemic risks” are the risks created when there is systemic causation. Systemic causation contrasts with direct causation, as when, say, someone lifts something, or throws something, or shoots someone.
…Progressives tend to think more readily in terms of systems than conservatives. We see this in the answers to a question like, “What causes crime?” Progressives tend to give answers like economic hardship, or lack of education, or crime-ridden neighborhoods. Conservatives tend more to give an answer like “bad people — lock ’em up, punish ‘em.” This is a consequence of a lifetime of thinking in terms of social connection (for progressives) and individual responsibility (for conservatives). Thus conservatives did not see the president’s plan, which relied on systemic causation, as a plan at all for directly addressing the deficit.
Differences in systemic thinking between progressives and conservatives can be seen in issues like global warming and financial reform. Conservatives have not recognized human causes of global warming, partly because they are systemic, not direct. When a huge snowstorm occurred in Washington DC recently, many conservatives saw it as disproving the existence of global warming — “How could warming cause snow?” Similarly, conservatives, thinking in terms of individual responsibility and direct causation, blamed homeowners for foreclosures on their homes, while progressives looked to systemic explanations, seeking reform in the financial system.
Thindwa then nails why conservatives really can’t fix poverty.
Actually, there is a self-serving logic to the Right’s aversion to a systemic approach to poverty mitigation. Really serious anti-poverty strategies would require its corporate benefactors to raise wages, dispense with union-busting, support minimum-wage hikes, embrace national healthcare, and stop discriminating on the basis of race, gender, age and disability. This burdensome outlook is what angers conservatives. The truth threatens their worldview.
Its easier to ignore that the economy really one big system that we’re all a part of. It’s a system that privileges some of us, and disadvantages other. It’s harder to consider that our status within that system —privileged or disadvantaged —may be partly or wholly unearned. It’s harder to consider that our privilege might result in and even depend on someone else being disadvantaged, because it shifts moral responsibility to us to do something about it. Or not.
If you can rationalize your privilege, and rationalize related inequities on the flip-side, then you don’t have to change how you are in the world; because all is right with the world, no matter how bad it is for somebody else.
In fact, your privilege — whether it stems from your race, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, etc. — doesn’t even exit. The whole world is suddenly a meritocracy. What you have, you deserve, basically because you have it. And the “have-nots”? Well, if they deserved it, they’d have it.
On the other hand, someone more liberal or progressive, and lacking such simple (not to mention self-serving) rationalizations for the inequities the witness might be more inclined to question — to ask why they exist and why they persist — and keep questioning until they reach a more challenging (and perhaps less self-serving, depending on their relative degree of privilege) answer, rather than simply accepting that they exist and that they persist because they ought to.
Essentially, progressives see poverty and ask “Why?”. Conservatives, on the other hand, look at the same thing and ask “Why not?”
If you ask why, without settling for simplistic answers, you might conclude that inequity an injustice do not exist in a vacuum and do not persist according to some law of nature, but because they serve as the basis for the privileges of some, and thus the privileged perpetuate them in order to preserve their privileges. You might be inclined to believe, then, that inequities and injustices are not “inevitable” or “natural” and you might also choose to do something about them. Or, even knowing all of this, not to. Either way, it’s a choice.
It’s not that conservatives don’t can’t fix poverty. Conservatives don’t want to fix poverty. Given would require of them a lot of hard work — both intellectual and political — that they just don’t want to do.