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Blaming the Poor for Their Own Poverty


Nicholas Kristof and Daniel Patrick Moynihan have much in common. Namely, they have constructed variations on the “culture of poverty” argument. In “The White Underclass,” his recent op-ed piece for the New York Times, Kristof brings our nation’s favorite blame game back: “In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan released a famous report warning of a crisis in African-American family structures, and many liberals at the time accused him of something close to racism. In retrospect, Moynihan was right to sound the alarms.”[1] Kristof does not call Moynihan a racist—no, he is merely something close to racist. This is far from comforting.

Kristof, like Moynihan, blames poor black families for their own struggles. Unlike Moynihan, he graciously extends this blame beyond black families and to white families as well—an update for these colorblind times. With Kristof’s muscle, the “culture of poverty” argument is taking on the contemporary poor generally, purportedly without race in mind. He has a grudge against the poor because he thinks they do not get married enough, that they do not engage enough in nuclear family structures, that they use too many drugs, and they have the gall to think that capitalism might work for them, when it is obvious to everyone else that it does not: “But the glove factory closed, working-class jobs collapsed and unskilled laborers found themselves competing with immigrants.” With the poor forced to compete with the invoked specter of immigrants, Kristof concludes that the “pathologies” discussed by Moynihan are real and relevant, and that we must build our social policies with this blame in mind.

Kristof’s piece is inspired by a new book by Charles Murray, Coming Apart, which blames liberal social policy for these problems. On the surface, Kristof opposes many points in the book, but if Kristof’s musings on the poor are any sign of how liberal policymakers think about such matters, then Murray has already won his point. The language is so drearily predictable. The working-class are men. There is a fixation on drug use as if it is solely a problem of the working-class and the poor. There is a framing of blacks and whites against immigrants. That this narrative about race and poverty reappears so easily and is so accessible tells us what we should already know: this argument is antagonistic to the poor and it is popular enough that liberals and conservatives can readily agree about it and move on to the debate over whether liberal or conservative social policy can fix the problem. There is no fixing the imagined.

In order to make clear his benevolence to the working-class subjects of this article, Kristof is quick to inform the reader that he is from a working class background, born in Yamhill, Oregon. This is irrelevant. Regardless of one’s roots, it is misleading to inform us that “growing numbers of working-class men drop out of the labor force.” We should be accountable for what we write and for how we write it. The way he phrases it, Kristof blames the victim–and also assumes a general maleness on the part of the workers. Kristof’s solution to this “male problem” of joblessness is antiquated and moralizing: he suggests that men may be tamed into the workforce through the civilizing effects of marriage. Unemployment is not pathological. The jobless do not drop out of the labor force; the labor force drops out on them.

Cameron Riopelle is a Ph. D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Illinois.



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