Thursday, July 21, 2011
July 21, 2011: Impoverished Arguments
One of my most overt goals for this blog has been that it pivot from day to day from one type of topic to a pretty distinct second type (and so on), both to highlight the many methodologies and approaches within AmericanStudies and to keep the themes and focal points and ideas and texts fresh and (hopefully) engaging. That’s still a central goal, but I have over time decided to allow myself to follow a particular day’s or issue’s lead if and when it feels appropriate. That was the impetus for the prior two posts, both of which were written in response to the debt ceiling debate and the many issues of taxation, wealth, spending, and the like that it has amplified; and it’s the impetus for today’s post, which can and should be read as a third in that series.
I read today of a new report on poverty in America from the conservative think-tank the Heritage Foundation; the report, available at the first link below, is long and detailed, but it’s most fundamental conclusion and argument is that the concept of “poverty,” as defined by governmental/official measures such as the poverty line, no longer jibes with our narratives about that situation. More exactly, as the title’s report suggests, the Heritage researchers argue that because many of the 30 million Americans currently defined as living under the poverty line own things like air-conditioning units and cable television sets, these Americans are not as poor as we might think. As would be expected, the report comes to a number of preliminary conclusions about the necessity (or lack thereof) of various social programs as a result of this argument, which ties it closely to the ongoing debates over what our priorities and emphases should be when it comes to the debt and deficit, government spending and taxation, and the like. The report also connects to many broader and more ongoing national narratives and debates, and most especially to narratives like Ronald Reagan’s infamous (and inaccurate/falsified) oft-repeated anecdotes of the “welfare queen driving a Cadillac” or the “young buck” using his food stamps to buy “T-bone steaks.” Sure, it’s important to work to alleviate genuine poverty (and hunger, and other related problems), these arguments go, but many of those being helped by these social programs aren’t genuinely impoverished, and thus are taking advantage of our help and society.
There are plenty of ways to counter such arguments, whether with facts and statistics (for example, enterprising reporters in the early 1980s dug into the story of Reagan’s “welfare queen” and found that she had received something like $8000 in benefits over more than a decade, rather than the hundreds of thousands that Reagan’s story described), anecdotes and personal experiences (pretty much every family with whom my Mom works receives government aid of one kind or another, and they all most definitely meet and exceed any images of poverty we might have), or counter-arguments (the wealthiest Americans have for many decades received, in tax breaks and corporate welfare and government subsidies and much else, at least as much support as the poorest, and with far less need). We can also point to the desire of all Americans to own certain items (such as television), even if it means (as it often does) living beyond our means (whatever they may be) in order to do so; while other items included in the Heritage report, such as cars, are in fact in many cases necessities for work. But the larger and to my mind more pertinent problem is the very existence of these narratives in the first place. I don’t believe that anyone would dispute the existence of poverty and hunger in our society, nor the variety of corollary problems (from a lack of medical coverage and a lack of preparation for education to homelessness and crime) that come with them. Yet rather than debate the methods or means of countering and alleviating those problems, it seems to me that far too often we debate instead whether the most disadvantaged among us—which would for example also include illegal immigrants—are genuinely worthy of our support at all; a perspective, I would add, that mirrors our tendency to idolize the super-rich, even when (as with Donald Trump, to cite one prominent example) their wealth derives mostly from inheritance.
American history certainly reveals both the continuing presence of poverty and its accompanying problems and the lack of any set or easy methods for alleviating it and them; it would be just as simplifying and inaccurate of me to claim that our history argues entirely for the benefits of government programs as it would to claim that it does not. Yet what our history and our contemporary society alike make clear is that far too many of our countrymen (to say nothing of others around the world) live in real and desperate poverty; disputing that reality seems to me a deeply impoverished position indeed. More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
1) The Heritage report: http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2011/07/what-is-poverty
2) A very different take on poverty (and especially on hunger) in America, at least in 2008 (although of course the likelihood of improvement in any of these areas is very slim): http://www.worldhunger.org/articles/Learn/us_hunger_facts.htm
3) OPEN: What do you think?
4) UPDATE: This piece by Barbara Ehrenreich is too salient not to add to the links: http://www.salon.com/news/great_recession/index.html?story=/politics/war_room/2011/08/09/america_crime_poverty