Something my 91 year old Republican grandmother said to me the other night really made me think about poverty in the United States. What she said was not particularly profound, but it marks what I think is a dividing line between left and right. Her comment was that, “I don’t understand how it is that some people have so much money and other people have none. There is something wrong with that.” It is important to keep in mind two facts here- my grandmother is quite well off in terms of wealth, and she lived through the Depression.
Perhaps those people who lived through that great economic crisis have a different perspective on poverty and income distribution. They were largely saved by enormous amounts of government spending via the New Deal and WWII. But they also experience the collective struggle of a time where nearly everyone was hurting. Since then, our recessions have been more mild and have affected only certain sectors of the economy. Though most people may know someone who lost a job, by and large most of us were not directly impacted in a significant way.
Most of the people who have been hurt by recessions seem to be those who are either poor or near poor. The poor experience benefit and service cuts as states seek to balance their budgets. And the near poor, who might then qualify for benefits due to loss of income, find that these cutbacks have caused those benefits to dry up.
Perhaps our current crisis, with its broad effects, might bring about more support for anti-poverty programs, but powerful interests will likely use their clout to minimize any government expansion. And those interests will have strong institutional support from Republicans and conservatives, broadly speaking.
Why the right side of the aisle tends to oppose anti-poverty programs is due in large part to their opposition to government in general. But, there is also a strand of thought in conservative circles that the poor are only that way because of bad decisions they have made. Absent from their view is any recognition of institutional barriers to climbing out of poverty, such as dreadful inner city schools, disparate impact of crime, racism, and simple lack of economic opportunity.
This strand has been evident in many Republican campaigns and political rhetoric for the past 3o plus years. The right has sought to vilify the poor and needy. They have bashed welfare recipients as welfare queens, leeches and any other manner of unpleasantries. The result has been a widespread belief that most of the poor are undeserving. This has even worked its way into the health care reform debate.
Some of the intellectual backing for this idea comes from right of center economists and libertarians. Whether they are disparaging Gini coefficients (the best measure of income inequality) as being meaningless or claiming that all wealth, unless begotten through fraud, is legitimate, they provide intellectual cover for a certain type of selfishness and greed. Factors that play into wealth creation, like the government and its enforcement of property rights and regulation of markets, play no role in these tales of heroes of capitalism. Nor is there any room for concern over money and its influence over the political/economic system.
But it should be clear to any thinking person that the ability to create wealth is the product of the society in which it occurs. Institutions and values matter. In a Hobbesian state of nature, these great captains of capitalism would not have the state to enforce contracts or protect property. They would be susceptible to the force of others, who are bigger or stronger or have more weapons.
In other words, society matters. It provides the basis for a functioning economic system. For that, we have an obligation to promote the general welfare of society, writ large. And yawning income inequality does not promote the welfare of society.
Despite our current economic crisis, we live in a land of great wealth. But the level of wealth concentration should be troubling to us all. This is not to say that our society ought to be, or strive for, some egalitarian ideal. Such a thing is not possible, nor is it desirable. However, it is simply unacceptable that so many should go without food today or without shelter tonight.
I do not claim to have the solutions to poverty, but we cannot go forward and address these issues if we cannot at least agree that we have a problem. That requires those on the right to change their perceptions of the poor and near poor and of the role of government in alleviating poverty. The right’s traditional fallback of private charity is simply unrealistic. The problems are too large and some are systemic in nature.
We must come to terms with the underlying problems of our economic and political systems. That they are tilted towards, and somewhat controlled by, those who have so much means that we need to wrest that power back. We need to level the playing field, as it were.
Someone once said that you judge a society by how well it takes care of its most needy members. By that standard, we are clearly not achieving excellence. And there is simply no good reason for the existence of so much poverty in a land of such plenty.