A serial journal of cogent reflections and irreverent insights on the social effects of capitalism and the roots of partisan politics. Pairing prose with HDR photography and “flash points” drawn from current and historical perspectives, the author seeks to recover lost wisdom and courageous action beyond the shouting and noise of today's headlines.
Chapter Seven, Part Two
How Wealth Became Concentrated and the Poor Were to Blame: What Should Be Done with the Poor?
For the record, Harrington tried to address the dilemma of what constituted poverty, but his efforts backfired. He acknowledged that poverty was a social and historical construct, different in different time periods and cultures. He believed, like Roosevelt, that those without minimal levels of health, housing, food, and education were poor — especially when those same resources were available to the larger population. It is with this definition that he arrived at the 40–50 million figure of poverty in 1962.
Harrington came to believe that poverty was a function of reinforcing social elements that shaped an individual's outlook. The outlook of the poor was different from the outlook of those who, like my parents, had hope for a better future. In that context, he believed that government had a critical role to play, but the real backdrop was the inadequate functioning of our economic and social institutions. Poverty resided in diverse physical locations and with different populations, but all faced similar obstacles. What were they?
Mitt Romney Criticized By Franciscan Friars For Comments On The Poor
Posted: 08/09/2012 2:36 pm Updated: 08/09/2012 3:55 pm
WASHINGTON- The Franciscan Action Network (FAN), a Catholic faith-based advocacy and civic engagement organization, is strongly criticizing Mitt Romney's recent ads and rhetoric regarding welfare programs and welfare recipients, urging him to spend some time in low-income communities.
"Our Christian tradition teaches that we are to treat the poor with dignity and to prioritize the poor in our policies as a society," the organization said in a press release on Thursday. "At a time when millions are struggling financially, it is degrading to talk about the 'dependency' of people hurting in this economy, as Gov. Romney did recently."
Rhett Engelking, a secular Franciscan in Milwaukee and member of FAN, has even personally invited Romney to visit with the low-income people he assists. “Political leaders would not talk about the poor in demeaning ways or cut job training programs if they spent more time with the people they are affecting with their policies," he said.
While faith-based anti-poverty and charity organizations have often criticized candidates and lawmakers for a perceived unwillingness to highlight and tackle issues affecting the very poor, FAN claims Romney's rhetoric goes a step further, unfairly using welfare recipients as political props.
He understood something that has only recently been supported statistically by studying geographic zip codes. Harrington argued that poverty was a toxic mix of factors that included poor health, minimal access to health care, high-crime neighborhoods, hostile police presence, failing schools, generational cycles of unemployment, low income, family instability, and inadequate diets. Overcoming any one of these factors was possible, but together they represented a vicious cycle of cumulative obstacles whose aggregate outcome was failure. For example, I have estimated that there are zip codes in my hometown of Oakland, California, in which the chances of an eighth grader eventually graduating from a four-year college are less than 6%.
A few miles away in another zip code, on the border of Oakland, the figure is closer to 90% graduation with 98% planning to attend some form of college. Naturally, the attitudes and resources of the group in which 98% aspire to college will be different from those with little evidence that they will succeed. It was in this context that Harrington attempted to address a “culture of poverty,” and the term stuck in the worst possible way.
What Harrington was hoping to communicate was the hellish interlocking forces that resulted in a systematic repudiation of individuals and the groups they came from. He added that it was not uncommon to find an attitude of futility and lack of self-worth within these settings — but he stressed that these attitudes were the symptoms, not the disease. For Harrington, the absence of what he called positive aspirational qualities was the psychological demarcation separating this new form of poverty from others, enclaves so beaten down that the individual response was passivity, self-destructive behavior, and outbursts of violence. He believed that somehow if the larger society became conscious of such a destructive spiral, they would be inspired to change it.
Looking back with hindsight, we might wonder what the hell he was thinking. Instead of altruistic regard, a backlash against the symptoms of poverty became the rallying cry for both the left and the right. The left wanted to create legislative policies and fund government programs to fix the problem; the right vilified the subjects of Harrington’s findings – the poor and marginal – as failing due to their own poor attitude and dismal culture.
Harrington’s analysis, viewed as initially catalyzing John Kennedy’s interest in the subject of poverty and later Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, inadvertently provided fodder for the belief that poverty was simply other. The poor were subject to character flaws of epic dimensions. These included lack of impulse control, limited sense of self, manipulativeness, unwillingness to contribute to society, and being destitute by nature if not by choice. Daniel Moynihan, a drinking buddy of Harrington’s at the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village and former assistant secretary of labor under both Kennedy and Johnson, compounded the problem with a report a few years later focusing on the inner city titled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.
Now poverty would be construed as other and black, though some might question that as redundant. What is unquestioned is that the same forces that polarized during Roosevelt’s time in office now found a new subject to disagree about with each other. What Harrington tried to portray as a byproduct of failing economic and social institutions cutting across age, race, and geographic region instead became the stigmatization, if not demonization, of the poor. The culture of poverty was for many the confirmation of an existing belief. The poor were to blame for having too many children, fostering negative attitudes, lacking personal responsibility, and demonstrating an absence of respect for law and order. The poor would drag us all down if we let them.
A decade or so later, Ronald Regan would campaign against welfare queens driving Cadillacs and taking money out of our collective pockets with their welfare checks. His message was that government should not aid and abet personal misconduct. Years later, Bill Clinton would negotiate new welfare reform legislation that mandated “chastity training” for poor single mothers. As Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out in an article on the 50th anniversary of The Other America’s publication, the language of a “culture of poverty” began as a jolt of social consciousness but devolved into the cornerstone of conservative ideology. The assault from the right was that poverty was caused “not by low wages or a lack of jobs, but by bad attitudes and faulty lifestyles.”
Meanwhile, the ghost of Karl Marx snickers on a stool at the Red Lion Pub. Ehrenreich, who knew Harrington, noted the subterranean forces that may have driven Harrington to use the “culture of poverty” as an explanatory principle. “Maurice Isserman, Harrington’s biographer, told me,” she wrote, “that he’d probably latched onto it in the first place only because ‘he didn’t want to come off in the book sounding like a stereotypical Marxist agitator stuck-in-the-thirties.’” Harrington, a socialist, probably didn’t want to be dismissed for evoking the one who could not be named.
In many respects, Harrington succeeded by not being identified with Marx. However, by avoiding one pitfall, he fell into another. By offering up the idea of culture as a way to understand what was happening in America, he provided an escape valve for both sides of the debate. One side viewed the poor as evidence of an unfulfilled contract within an affluent society needing remedy; the other viewed them as a danger to society. Neither really wanted to talk about the distribution of wealth or the structural basis of social inequality. Icebergs will melt and buildings will fall before we get to that one.
Chapter Eight: Planetary Consciousness Arises, Cautiously