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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:
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):
3)      OPEN: What do you think?
4) UPDATE: This piece by Barbara Ehrenreich is too salient not to add to the links:


  1. Ha. Ha. Ha. I think we should force the two authors and their families to live in a Bronx project tower for the next 5 years and live off of welfare. I guarantee the first thing they would do is purchase cable and DVD players to block out the sounds of the neighbors fighting. And, oh yeah, they might need a used car to get to their minimum wage job. And, yeah, a coffee maker to save money on Starbucks. And an oven so they don't have to live off of fast food. Oh, and maybe an air-conditioner for the baby.

    The authors make a basic point that you didn't necessarily need their study to know...poverty in America does not necessarily equal material deprivation. Duh. We are, of course, one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Thank God we don't have poor people living in Africa-like conditions. But, you've got to love their logical conclusion: Welfare programs have succeeded in alleviating material deprivation in America...therefore we must stop paying for them. Is there a part of them that wants to see U.S. poverty turn into African poverty?

  2. _Nickeled and Dimed_ was one of the greatest books I've read on the subject of poverty. The author put herself in the position that many Americans find themselves in, living paycheck to paycheck on a minimum wage paying job. She pointed out that the so-called assistance she received was inadequate and unhealthy. For example, the food provided was largely pasta and high carbohydrate food, no fresh fruits or veggies. In a class with Hobes I actually pointed out that the poor of this country are usually overweight because the food they can afford is much worse for you than that food moderate-high income households enjoy.
    The sad fact of the matter is that, if you do the math, living off of fast food (specifically Taco Bell and Wendy's) is far less expensive than grocery shopping and cooking.
    One last thing and then I get off the soap box. Poor people own air-conditioning units and satellite TVs for the same reason middle-income families do... they were never taught to be fiscally responsible, or to deny themselves anything in the name of discipline. I know it's a freaky-read, but _Walden Two_ was actually RIGHT on target!