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Deep Poverty in America: the On-Going Tradition of Not Caring

In the assessment of poverty in the United States there is a category known as “deep poverty.” The definition of deep poverty, as given in a recent article on this subject in the Philadelphia Inquirer of 30 September 2015, goes as follows: “deep poverty is measured as income of 50% or less of the poverty rate.” In other words, the current poverty level income for a U.S. family of four is $24,000 a year, which means that the same family receiving only $12,000 is in deep poverty. At this level, hopelessness prevails and one’s day-to-day goal is just staying alive.

The deep poverty rate for the United States as a whole is 6.8 percent of the population. Using the rounded-off 2014 census figure of 322 million residents, that comes to about 22 million men, women and children in deep poverty. This is a pretty shocking figure for what most regard as the richest country on earth.

It should come as no surprise that, according to the article, “deep poverty increased nationwide after 1996, when the welfare system was changed. … The number of people on cash welfare was drastically reduced and the amount of time people could receive benefits was limited.” This was a public policy decision taken by elected officials at the national level. All at once, the “safety net” for the poor, and particularly for those at this deep level of poverty, all but disappeared.

The Tradition of Not Caring

The article goes on to state that “most Americans cannot fathom the level of privation that deep poverty represents.” I am not sure this is the case. Deep poverty is very visible. Consider that at present 81 percent of Americans live in urban environments. In such environments it is easy to encounter the homeless and the baggers, most of whom are in deep poverty. So ubiquitous are they that a Hollywood movie has recently been made about them. It is entitled “Time Out of Mind” and stars Richard Gere. Here is a quote from the Philadelphia Inquirer’s film review of 2 October 2015, “People talk on cell phones, run for the bus, head for meals – almost uniformly indifferent” to the fate of the homeless man Gere portrays.

Also keep in mind that it was not that long ago that people had older relatives who lived through the Great Depression, a time when deep poverty was even more visible. That story is a big part of the nation’s modern history.

Rather than pretending that Americans “cannot fathom” deep poverty, it is better to argue that popular perception is more complex. When the non-poor see that homeless person, they probably feel a bit of worry and disgust all at once. In the end, they turn aside and pretend not to see. And this denotes a collective sentiment of not caring enough about the problem to push for the policies needed to correct it – policies which go way beyond welfare.

Why would this be the case? Here are a couple of reasons:

First, there is the fact that the people of the United States, perhaps more than any other Western country, are still influenced by the primitive outlook of 18th and 19th century capitalism. In those centuries both the middle and upper classes favored government restricted to three functions: 1. defense of the realm; 2. police, courts and the enforcement of contracts; 3. and upholding the sanctity of private property. Care for the poor was the responsibility of the churches. This entire setup was designed to maximize individual freedom by keeping government small in both power and scope. Maintaining this status would also hold taxes down to a minimum.

You can easily see this attitude toward government in the ideology of the Tea Party and the conservative politicians who cater to that group’s complaints. For instance, take the reason given by Ben Shapiro, a journalist and Tea Party advocate, why the Republican Party was successful in the 2010 congressional elections: “In 2010, Republicans soared to historic victory because the much-maligned Tea Party spearheaded mass resistance to Obama’s takeover of the healthcare industry.”

The statement is a gross exaggeration, at least as to the claim that the government had taken over the healthcare industry. It did no such thing, but rather moved to work with private insurance companies so as to facilitate healthcare for the poor and uninsured. However, spending tax money on the poor only fed into the paranoia over big government that afflicts Shapiro and his lot.

Another angle on this sentiment can be found in the declaration of Michele Bachmann, another Tea Party advocate, that the Tea Party “stands for the fact that we are taxed enough already.” This statement is misleading at best. While it is true that those of moderate or low income are often highly taxed, those of high income are definitely not. In the U.S. the wealthy pay less taxes than those of moderate income. Finally, Elizabeth Warren, a liberal Democrat, has correctly concluded that the Tea Party is dedicated to “unraveling just about everything the federal government had ever built.” That is straight out of the playbook of primitive18th-19th century capitalism.

There is a second reason why many non-poor Americans do not actively concern themselves with poverty, deep or not, and that has to do with what I call “natural localness” – the generic tendency for all of us to concentrate foremost on our local sphere. Thus, caring, like charity, begins at home and usually does not go far beyond it.

We care for our family and friends, sometimes (though not always) for our neighbors, local co-religionists, co-workers or others in local social groups we might identify with. But we rarely actively care about strangers.

The primitive, yet still extant, capitalist ideology referred to above comes in here and reinforces this space between us and the stranger who happens to also be poor. This ideology teaches that poverty is a personal failing with moral implications. That is, if you are poor, it is your fault. It is because you are lazy and otherwise morally deficient. The possibility that poverty, and particularly deep poverty, could be a structural problem of both capitalist and racial or ethnically biased economies is never considered in this interpretation. And, tax-wise, it is cheaper to blame the victim in this case, than pay out adequate welfare.

The argument given here, that not caring is an age-old tradition, should not be taken to mean that there are no individuals out there who do in fact actively care and advocate for strangers who are poor, oppressed, and otherwise mistreated. These folks do exist. There are individuals who actively advocate for the ultimate strangers – people suffering on other continents. There are even those who dedicate their lives to giving solace to incarcerated murderers. The point is that these folks are a small minority amidst a sea of ultimate indifference. They are, if you will, counter-cultural, despite occasionally getting good press.

It might be the case that we could, over time, teach the nation’s youth to be more caring of strangers in need. After all, being human means that we are not necessarily slaves to evolution-rooted tendencies like natural localness. But to do this would be to challenge tradition and wage a political struggle against narrow-minded school boards. So, the odds are against it. It is easier to go with the indifference that just comes naturally.

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Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

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