Blaming the Poor for Their Own Poverty

by CAMERON RIOPELLE

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.

Notes. 

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/09/opinion/kristof-the-decline-of-white-workers.html

Will Falk moved to the West Coast from Milwaukee, WI where he was a public defender.

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
July 29, 2015
Mike Whitney
The Politics of Betrayal: Obama Backstabs Kurds to Appease Turkey
Joshua Frank
The Wheels Fell Off the Bernie Sanders Bandwagon
Conn Hallinan
Ukraine: Close to the Edge
Stephen Lendman
What Happened to Ralkina Jones? Another Jail Cell Death
Rob Wallace
Neoliberal Ebola: the Agroeconomic Origins of the Ebola Outbreak
Dmitry Rodionov
The ‘Ichkerization’ Crime Wave in Ukraine
Joyce Nelson
Scott Walker & Stephen Harper: a New Bromance
Bill Blunden
The Red Herring of Digital Backdoors and Key Escrow Encryption
Thomas Mountain
The Sheepdog Politics of Barack Obama
Farzana Versey
A President and a Yogi: Abdul Kalam’s Symbolism
Norman Pollack
America’s Decline: Internal Structural-Cultural Subversion
Foday Darboe
How Obama Failed Africa
Cesar Chelala
Russia’s Insidious Epidemic
Tom H. Hastings
Defending Democracy
David Macaray
Why Union Contracts are Good for the Country
Virginia Arthur
The High and Dry Sierras
Jon Langford
Mekons Tour Diary, the Season Finale, Mekonception in Redhook
July 28, 2015
Mark Schuller
Humanitarian Occupation of Haiti: 100 Years and Counting
Lawrence Ware
Why the “Black Church” Doesn’t Exist–and Never Has
Peter Makhlouf
Israel and Gaza: the BDS Movement One Year After “Protective Edge”
Carl Finamore
Landlords Behaving Badly: San Francisco Too Valuable for Poor People*
Michael P. Bradley
Educating About Islam: Problems of Selectivity and Imbalance
Binoy Kampmark
Ransacking Malaysia: the Najib Corruption Dossier
Michael Avender - Medea Benjamin
El Salvador’s Draconian Abortion Laws: a Miscarriage of Justice
Jesse Jackson
Sandra Bland’s Only Crime Was Driving While Black
Cesar Chelala
Effect of Greece’s Economic Crisis on Public Health
Mel Gurtov
Netanyahu: An Enemy of Peace
Joseph G. Ramsey
The Limits of Optimism: E.L. Doctorow and the American Left
George Wuerthner
Bark Beetles and Forest Fires: Another Myth Goes Up in Smoke
Paul Craig Roberts - Dave Kranzler
Supply and Demand in the Gold and Silver Futures Markets
Eric Draitser
China’s NGO Law: Countering Western Soft Power and Subversion
Harvey Wasserman
Will Ohio Gov. Kasich’s Anti-Green Resume Kill His Presidential Hopes?
Jon Langford
Mekons Tour Diary, Episode 4, a Bowery Ballroom Blitz
July 27, 2015
Susan Babbitt
Thawing Relations: Cuba’s Deeper (More Challenging) Significance
Howard Lisnoff
Bernie Sanders: Savior or Seducer of the Anti-War Left?
Martha Rosenberg
Big Pharma’s Profiteers: You Want Us to Pay What for These Meds?
Joshua Sperber
What is a President? The CEO of Capitalism
John Halle
On Berniebots and Hillary Hacks, Dean Screams, Swiftboating and Smears
Stephen Lendman
Cleveland Police Attack Black Activists
Zoe Konstantopoulou
The Politics of Coercion in Greece
Patrick Cockburn
Only Iraq’s Clerics Can Defeat ISIS
Ralph Nader
Sending a ‘Citizens Summons’ to Members of Congress
Clancy Sigal
Scratch That Itch: Hillary and The Donald
Colin Todhunter
Working Class War Fodder
Gareth Porter
Obama’s Version of Iran Nuke Deal: a Second False Narrative