Poverty is Political

Poverty is an ugly stain on the social fabric. It is also part of the economic equation that when added up is called capitalism. Even one of capitalism’s first cheerleaders Adam Smith acknowledged that “no society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.” The history of capitalism since that time has further proven that this economic system left unfettered cares little to none about how many people are poor and miserable. In its reasoning, this is a primary reason why most capitalist governments instituted some kind of social safety net for their citizens left by the wayside under capitalism’s inequality. Despite any altruism that might have guided the legislation creating these safety nets, the bottom line is that these safety nets have kept the poor from overturning the capitalist regime in favor of one run by the workers. Despite this, there have always been exceeding self-righteous and greedy capitalists joined by similar thinking politicians working to end any kind of assistance to the poor. We have seen their ilk control governments of Britain and the US since the late 1970s.

Part of the methodology used by this element of society includes spreading their gospel of individualism. It is a gospel that rejects the rights of working people to organize, and classifies people according to how they wish to repress them. First and foremost, however, it blames the poor and the lowly paid for their own circumstances. In doing so, it rejects the very essence of capitalism—the idea that profit for the owner and the corporation comes from underpaying those who do the labor. Once this stance is taken, then anything the employer does to enhance their profit and further impoverish those who work for them is morally acceptable under these ethics. The role of government is to support this approach. This is especially true in the United States, a nation where the exploitation of labor by the wealthy is the accepted understanding by all of its residents. In part it is done via its social welfare programs; programs which are designed to embarrass and reproach those who are in need of them. In general, the essence of these programs is to place the blame on the individual for their poverty.

A recently published book, titled The Poverty Paradox: Understanding Economic Hardship Amid American Prosperity, challenges the common understanding described above. Instead, the author Mark Robert Rank begins with an understanding that poverty represents a failure on a structural level. This understanding naturally takes his text in a direction that means the solution for poverty is to be found by changing the structure. Before he begins to discuss potential solutions (short of a left-wing revolution), Mr. Rank presents a clear and potentially disheartening discussion of the odds against lower income working class families, specific to each generation and over time. These are the symptoms of an economic system designed by those with money to insure their money will remain in their families for generations. For working-class families, this means that once a family experiences something more than a short period of poverty and finds themselves returning to a dependence on ineffectual poverty programs and charity, the likelihood of them escaping this cycle decreases. As noted earlier, this is in large part because those programs are designed to maintain a certain percentage of poor people in society.

The author provides an analysis of statistics regarding poverty, wealth, and opportunity for different demographic groups. One common denominator in all of those concerning poverty and opportunity is that single women and Black Americans consistently face the most difficulty in taking advantage of opportunity and ending poverty. This increases when there are children involved. The reasons for this are many, but as Rank explains, can be boiled down to two essentials: racism and sexism. Black people are often rejected for jobs even if they are better qualified; women with children have no affordable and easy access to childcare. Of course, this means poor Black women with children find it even more difficult to improve their economic lot. In order to explain this reality, the author uses the metaphor of musical chairs—a game where people try to sit on fewer chairs than there are people while a song plays. When the song is over, whoever is not in a chair is left out of the game. Author Rank’s description makes it clear the US economy begins with too few chairs for those who are already “disadvantaged because of their race, gender, family history and so on.

The Poverty Paradox describes a morally bankrupt nation. Not only is it failing its poorest and most disadvantaged, most of its politicians are unwilling to seriously address this. Instead, many of them are stepping up their attacks on the poor both in their words and their deeds. As I write this, millions of US residents are at risk of losing their Medicaid benefits and millions have already seen their SNAP/EBT payments decrease by over a third. Meanwhile, the price of food continues to rise with most of it going into the bank accounts of those who are gouging consumers in the name of profit. As far as Congress goes, a groundswell is strengthening among the right wing to continue the hundreds of billions worth of tax cuts benefiting the wealthiest while liberals and a fair number of righwingers continue to hand billions and billions of dollars to the war machine and its conflicts around the world. This is an ultimately hopeful text. Mr. Rank provides relevant and important details of the inequality, how it works day to day. However, he does not challenge the fact of capitalism and the exploitation of labor and resources that define its essential nature. Like those of Bernie Sanders, Rank’s prescriptions would be very helpful if they were implemented. Indeed, that possibility might be the only salvation left for this nation called the United States.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com