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Rediscovering Poverty

Posted on Mar 17, 2012
michael_stahl (CC-BY)

A pedestrian walks past a beggar on a street in Oslo.

By Barbara Ehrenreich, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

So it was in a spirit of righteousness and even compassion that Democrats and Republicans joined together to reconfigure social programs to cure, not poverty, but the “culture of poverty.” In 1996, the Clinton administration enacted the “One Strike” rule banning anyone who committed a felony from public housing. A few months later, welfare was replaced by Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), which in its current form makes cash assistance available only to those who have jobs or are able to participate in government-imposed “workfare.”

In a further nod to “culture of poverty” theory, the original welfare reform bill appropriated $250 million over five years for “chastity training” for poor single mothers. (This bill, it should be pointed out, was signed by Bill Clinton.)

Even today, more than a decade later and four years into a severe economic downturn, as people continue to slide into poverty from the middle classes, the theory maintains its grip. If you’re needy, you must be in need of correction, the assumption goes, so TANF recipients are routinely instructed in how to improve their attitudes and applicants for a growing number of safety-net programs are subjected to drug-testing. Lawmakers in 23 states are considering testing people who apply for such programs as job training, food stamps, public housing, welfare, and home heating assistance. And on the theory that the poor are likely to harbor criminal tendencies, applicants for safety net programs are increasingly subjected to finger-printing and computerized searches for outstanding warrants.

Unemployment, with its ample opportunities for slacking off, is another obviously suspect condition, and last year 12 states considered requiring pee tests as a condition for receiving unemployment benefits. Both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have suggested drug testing as a condition for all government benefits, presumably including Social Security. If granny insists on handling her arthritis with marijuana, she may have to starve.


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What would Michael Harrington make of the current uses of the “culture of poverty” theory he did so much to popularize? I worked with him in the 1980s, when we were co-chairs of Democratic Socialists of America, and I suspect he’d have the decency to be chagrined, if not mortified. In all the discussions and debates I had with him, he never said a disparaging word about the down-and-out or, for that matter, uttered the phrase “the culture of poverty.” Maurice Isserman, Harrington’s biographer, told me 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.”

The ruse—if you could call it that—worked. Michael Harrington wasn’t red-baited into obscurity.  In fact, his book became a bestseller and an inspiration for President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. But he had fatally botched the “discovery” of poverty. What affluent Americans found in his book, and in all the crude conservative diatribes that followed it, was not the poor, but a flattering new way to think about themselves—disciplined, law-abiding, sober, and focused. In other words, not poor.

Fifty years later, a new discovery of poverty is long overdue. This time, we’ll have to take account not only of stereotypical Skid Row residents and Appalachians, but of foreclosed-upon suburbanites, laid-off tech workers, and America’s ever-growing army of the “working poor.” And if we look closely enough, we’ll have to conclude that poverty is not, after all, a cultural aberration or a character flaw. Poverty is a shortage of money.

Barbara Ehrenreich, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” (now in a 10th anniversary edition with a new afterword).

This is a joint TomDispatch/Nation article and appears in print at the Nation magazine.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 Barbara Ehrenreich

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By Graham Weeks, March 22, 2012 at 6:38 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

What a coincidence! I am 2/3 of the way through Jay McLeod’s brilliant “Ain’t No Makin’ It”, in which he recounts the lives of a group of poor whites and another of poor blacks in a Northeastern U.S. slum. He first meets them as teenagers, follows them up as young adults, then again when they’re in their early 40s. They themselves confess to having made many bad decisions that keep them on the margins of society. However, breaking out of those margins, especially at a time of de-industrialization of the American economy, is extremely difficult if not impossible - even for those who’ve bought into the Horatio Alger myth of achievement.
Graham Weeks, Austin, Quebec, Canada

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By Tobysgirl, March 20, 2012 at 12:34 pm Link to this comment

I’ve thought quite a bit about people who blame others who have no home, no job, etc, for their own predicament. Once again, I will mention that my husband works with a group of women who are very reactionary and judgmental, and over and over again he has described to me the things they say and do. Plus I have my own experience of speaking with neighbors, churchgoers, and others.

When my husband also described to me the educational attainments and the backgrounds of these women, I realized that many people, one step away from poverty and/or a deprived family, are eager to blame the poor because they are so damned scared they’re going to end up right back in that rundown trailer with no heat. People never seem to consider the opportunities they may have had that others don’t (a white skin is a big opportunity), and they look up to and want to emulate the rich in their utter disregard for their fellow creatures.

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By jimmmmmy, March 20, 2012 at 9:00 am Link to this comment

Great article . Informative.

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By Keith M. Bender, March 19, 2012 at 4:55 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Funny thing, I thought War in Iraq, the War in Afghanistan,
The Fall of Libya, and operating as if we
are the World’s keeper and Savior with 180 bases around
the Globe was the in direct relationship to bleeding
those not poor to the brink and beyond POVERTY
,attacking the POOR as if they deserve the abuse
rendered upon them while keeping the ELEPHANT in the
Living room a big secret we don’t talk about or
question?  Funny thing these Wars.

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By DonSchneider, March 19, 2012 at 6:19 am Link to this comment

I had to wade through the obvious “blaming the victim” strategical justifications
and a rehash of Oscar Lewis et. al. to come to the only meaningful statement in
the article; The last line !

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DonSchneider's avatar

By DonSchneider, March 19, 2012 at 5:32 am Link to this comment

I had ton wade through the obvious “blaming the victim” strategical justifications
and a rehash of Oscar Lewis et. al. to come to the only meaningful statement in
the article; The last line !

Report this

By jenal, March 18, 2012 at 10:46 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I broke an entrenched cycle of generational poverty in a family plagued by alcoholism,gambling addiction,drug use, teen pregnancy, criminal activity, and low level of education. I’m not so naive or heartless to say that all poor people are poor by choice, but I think it’s equally cruel to deny the connection between choice and circumstance. The chronically poor need a healthy dose of the truth combined with empowering programs that offer alternatives for self-defeating choices, and they would benefit by contributing to the level they are able.The temporarily poor need help and support in getting their feet back on the ground and shouldn’t enjoy greater freedoms than those of us with jobs.

I have voluntarily submitted to background checks, fingerprinting and drug screening as a condition of employment, so why shouldn’t the poor be required to do the same as a condition of receiving money I earned as a result of that employment? We need to stop thinking of accountability measures as violations of poor people’s rights and start thinking of them as needed safeguards to preserve benefits for those who really need them. With a 16 trillion dollar debt, we simply can’t afford to trust the honor system when doling out taxpayer money.

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By Morpheus, March 17, 2012 at 5:22 pm Link to this comment

The real problem is that we only talk about what’s wrong in this country. We never do anything real.

OsiXs (Revolution 2.0 - The Smart Revolution)

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By taxed enough, March 17, 2012 at 4:29 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Since the 1960s the taxpayers of this country transferred over $16 Trillion to the poor and low income through means tested giveaway programs.  We have over 70 such programs.  We now have a huge poverty problem and are $15 Trillion in debt.  I guess all that giving didn’t work out very well. 
Maybe we should try giving away another $16 Trillion.  Maybe it will work the second time around.
BTW - I don’t hear any of the bleedliberals telling the people who took the $16 Trillion without earning it that they are “Greedy”.

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By jr., March 17, 2012 at 11:41 am Link to this comment

I’m speechless!!!

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By gerard, March 17, 2012 at 11:16 am Link to this comment

Accurate, straightforward and profoundly honest!
I’ve lived long enough to go through this movement of “the American consciousness” from the era of donating to food-banks (“Christian compassion” and the “Great” Depression) to the fight to get Rooseveltl’s “welfare state” to the reaction to “entitlements” (to people who are told they “aren’t entitled to them”!) to attempts to cut social security in order to feed the Pentagon. I’ve seen and realized the mixed-up feelings and motivations, the deceits, the avoidances, the lies, the profoundly destructive results of it all. Some-
times it seems my entire life has been spent eating food that other people needed more than I did!
  Talk about a country with twisted prioirities!

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