The Poverty Of How We Talk About Poverty

Poverty is a non-issue in the 2016 Presidential election because we’ve rendered it a non-issue in American life.

At some point during the Reagan / Thatcher era, we stopped talking about class as an economic category and replaced it with an understanding of class as cultural or ideological. Hence, we now have a much richer vocabulary for talking about middle-class values than we do for talking about the social and material conditions necessary for middle-class life.

However, the shift from material conditions to (non-material) values as the lens through which we understand class has had the effect of making it easier for political strategists to shape class interests by shaping cultural values and beliefs.

The long-term effect of poverty becoming a cultural, then a moral issue is that while many people are just a handful of paychecks away from destitution, “the poor” have essentially disappeared from the American imagination.

That poverty is hardly acknowledged in the Presidential election is the subject of this article from The New York Times:

The Millions of Americans Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton Barely Mention: The Poor

The United States, the wealthiest nation on Earth, also abides the deepest poverty of any developed nation, but you would not know it by listening to Hillary Clinton or Donald J. Trump, the major parties’ presidential nominees.

Mrs. Clinton, speaking about her economic plans on Thursday near Detroit, underscored her credentials as an advocate for middle-class families whose fortunes have flagged. She said much less about helping the 47 millions Americans who yearn to reach the middle class.
Her Republican rival, Mr. Trump, spoke in Detroit on his economic proposals four days ago, and while their platforms are markedly different in details and emphasis, the candidates have this in common: Both promise to help Americans find jobs; neither has said much about helping people while they are not working.

Read the article on –>

A few notes:

1) It was also in the age of Reagan that “middle class” became the template in terms of which other classes were to be understood. Once class became more an indication of a state of mind and a lifestyle than a designation of social status and material wealth, it’s now common that individuals mis-designate their own class. Consequently, lots of poor people don’t think of themselves as such—even if they acknowledge making low wages.

2) For politicians, it’s easier to help the middle class. Political leaders and strategists have shaped “middle-class values” in such a way that one supports them by “getting out of the way” and “getting government off the backs of Americans.” Thus, the political class has successfully imprinted its hands-off agenda on the middle class while catering to the interests of the upper class in much more hands-on and welfare-like ways. Meanwhile, they pay little to no attention to the poor, working and lower class—unless they riot.

3) We’ve backed ourselves into a dead end where talking about poverty is talking either about a “failure of the system,” a “socialist” critique that gets more and more verboten as the the system gets weaker and weaker, or a neoliberal “failure of character” critique that conquers by dividing people who essentially have the same economic interests. In an age of persistently stagnant wages and deepening wealth disparity, both views have exhausted themselves, but will persist because we acknowledge few if any alternatives.

5) Thus, the true poverty of how we talk about poverty is that we can’t talk about the possibility that we’ve reached a stage of capitalism that simply can’t fix poverty, but also inoculates the rest of us against losing sleep about it.

6) Still, poverty does indeed have a future. It’s a future in which if you’re poor, with both Peter and Paul at your door because you had to pay John, the most valuable thing you’ll own will be your social security number. With it, the poor gain access to payday loans, easy credit rip-offs, rent-to-own and pay-as-you-go schemes, ninja loans, Rush Cards, and over-priced degrees from for-profit “colleges,” producing debt for banks in the way that they would have produced goods for America back when labor actually had value.


IMAGE SOURCE: Poverty, Pauper, Poor, Street, Indifference, Homeless (pixabay)

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