Poverty – Who Is To Blame?

I wrote a column in the Press & Dakotan today. I present it here for your consideration:

———

Poor Americans are not Americans at all.

In fact, they are traitors to America.

With their laziness, they betray our hard-working ideals. The only hand they will lift is the one used to greedily snatch up hand-outs and entitlements.

Their poverty is their personal failure. It is their choice. It is their self-imposed sentence to persecution, ridicule and shame.

And we should waste no time in making sure that sentence is fulfilled.

———

If that sounds cold-hearted, it’s because it is. Yet I hear sentiments like these in conversations and on the nation’s airwaves regularly.

They usually come dressed up in more colorful attire, but strip away the artifice and you find these beliefs staring back at you.

The United States is a country that has conceded the war on poverty. Instead, a far too large portion of its citizens gets a certain satisfaction out of waging a war upon the poor because its members cannot conceive that they could ever be one of “those people.” Therefore, “those people” deserve nothing but suspicion and contempt — except when the their “superiors” want to feel charitable.

While contemplating the English attitude toward the poor, Suzanne Moore wrote in The Guardian UK: “(There is a belief that) poverty is not a sign of collective failure but individual immorality. The psychic coup of neo-liberal thinking is just this: instead of being disgusted by poverty, we are disgusted by poor people themselves. This disgust is a growth industry. We lay this moral bankruptcy at the feet of the poor as we tell ourselves we are better than that.”

As the economy continues to falter and more Americans find themselves falling down the ladder, many cling to that disgust and try ever harder to trample those below them. We fight amongst ourselves for the scraps in an increasingly low-wage wasteland where many hard-working Americans are one health problem away from economic calamity.

But we are social creatures, forever comparing ourselves to one another. It’s a comfort to be able to look down: “I may be falling, but at least I’m not the trash on the bottom rung.” Dare to suggest a rope be thrown to those below and watch the knives come out. Instead of working together, we work against one another.

All of this reflects a poverty of ideas in this country and, more importantly, a poverty of the soul.

It is a refusal to recognize that we live in an economic system that is a game of chance. Increasingly, the family to which you were born will determine the economic outcome of your life. If you want to improve your chances of living the “American Dream” and climbing the economic ladder, studies have demonstrated you have a better chance of accomplishing it in Europe, where there are economic safety nets and more equal educational opportunities.

As much as we would like to believe that hard work, talent or a combination of the two will lead to a steady, livable income, that is not reality. Sometimes, the system and chance conspire to spit people out at random and send them spiraling to a place that they, too, never thought they would go.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota last year published the findings of a study titled, “Entrepreneurs, chance and the deterministic concentration of wealth.” In their simulation, it was found that even when all investors are given an equal chance of success, wealth concentrates into the hands of a few over time.

Unless government action is taken to counteract this consolidation of wealth, the researchers concluded, the economy becomes more and more dependent on the lucky few and lacks the ability to be resilient.

Sound familiar?

You see, the capitalist system ensures there will be winners and losers. With income and wealth inequality increasing, it means there will be a few big winners and far more losers. The space between the top and bottom rungs is shrinking so that you are either on the top or the bottom. Forget the middle ground.

Some find comfort in the knowledge that there is a welfare system and charities, religious and otherwise, that provide support to those who find themselves homeless or in other dire straits.

It is not nearly enough.

Look at the numbers: 46.2 million Americans were living in poverty in 2010. That was the largest number of Americans living in poverty in the 52 years since such estimates have been published by the U.S. Census Bureau.

But hey, some of these “poor” people have telephones and refrigerators. Some even have the “luxury” of living in a functioning vehicle.

Are they really poor?

This is the condescending debate some would prefer to have rather than addressing the role educational opportunity, low wages and lack of a well-planned safety net that allows people to get back on their feet contributes to the large-scale poverty we allow in this country.

We do not have 46.2 million individual failures; we have a failure of society.

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