Misunderstanding poverty in the U.S.

The debate about cuts to welfare programs at all levels of government has thus far focused on the minor technical differences separating Republican and Democratic proposals. Zero critical attention has been paid to the assumptions about the causes of poverty underwriting all such plans. This is unfortunate because the assumed explanation for poverty guiding Gingrich, Clinton and other architects of “welfare reform” is deeply flawed and, if it continues to hold sway, will lead politicians across the country to embrace reckless policy changes, which threaten millions with starvation and homelessness.
Behind the current attack on the welfare system is the conservative and completely unsubstantiated idea that poverty results from a weakened work ethic, pathological behavior and defective values. The poor, welfare critics contend, lack the discipline and self-control needed to hold down a regular job, preferring instead a life of petty crime or reliance on public handouts. In other words, these critics argue that poverty is essentially caused by irresponsible laziness. Sometimes they insinuate that the poor’s employment difficulties are compounded by drug abuse and other self-destructive habits that further erode the will to work. Some conservative pundits and politicians even blame our incredibly stingy welfare system for exacerbating the plight of the so-called “underclass” by encouraging their alleged tendencies toward dependence and passivity. No matter how elaborate and sophisticated sounding, though, the basic argument advanced by welfare bashers of all stripes boils down to the assertion that poverty results from individual failure or dysfunction — failure to take responsibility for one’s life, failure to work hard, dysfunctional values, etc. — which government is ultimately powerless to correct.
What a load of crap.
For this theory to be even remotely plausible, it would have to be true that the existing economic system actually rewarded hard work with a decent living and that wages and salaries were at least roughly commensurate with personal effort. But this is obviously not the case. In the real world of contemporary American capitalism, those who work the hardest — farm workers, secretaries, janitors, orderlies, day care providers, dishwashers, etc. — are so badly compensated that they have trouble making ends meet while the idle rich and do-nothing executives own the vast majority of the country’s wealth. According to a 1993 report in The Nation, some 13 million breadwinners worked full time, year-round in 1992 and still earned below what it took to pull a family of three effectively out of poverty. On the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, mean CEO compensation in 1995 reached a new high of $3.75 million annually (in case you’re wondering, that averages out to around $72,000 a week). One top executive, Lawrence Cross of Green Tree Financial, raked in more than $65 million in salaries and bonuses last year alone.
Is it possible to defend the proposition that fat cats like Lawrence Cross or Donald Trump somehow earned their mega-millions by the proverbial “sweat of their brow”? Ridiculous! No one could possibly work hard enough to actually deserve that kind of money. Besides, the stuff upper-management types do all day — play endless rounds of golf, fire loyal employees in droves, attend lavishly catered business meetings and drink lots of martinis — doesn’t exactly qualify as labor.
Conversely, does anyone seriously believe that “lack of work ethic” is the reason why the janitors who clean our skyscrapers or the day care workers who care for our children often earn as little as $4.25 per hour? No, of course not. In fact, if the conservative theory of poverty were true, if all it took to escape poverty was tireless labor, then there would be virtually no poor people in this country. The vast majority of those living in poverty work at least part time (and would work more if they could find full-time jobs). In fact, most of the women on Aid for Families with Dependent Children, who are often viciously stigmatized by conservatives as parasitic “welfare queens,” have held a job at some point during the past two years. The explosion in the numbers of the “working poor” during the past three decades invalidates the idea that initiative and effort alone determines economic status.
But the problems with the conservative theory of poverty don’t end here. The theory is useless for explaining the periodic bouts of depression and recession that mark America’s economic history. According to the reactionary explanations for poverty, the Great Depression of the 1930s would have to be understood, not as a structural crisis of the capitalist system, but rather as an attack of contagious laziness. Similarly, the double-digit unemployment of the 1970s would have to be attributed to yet another mysterious outbreak of infectious indolence.
The point here is that most of us have little or no control over our economic destiny. Whether or not we can find a job, what kind of job we find, the amount of money we earn for the tasks we perform — all of this is determined by general economic conditions and plain dumb luck, both of which are beyond the province of any individual to influence. Sure, there are things that one can do to improve one’s chances of getting a decent job and earning a comfortable living (i.e., get an education, move to an area where there are more jobs, etc.) but none of them offers a guarantee of success. In lean times of sluggish growth, such as those we have experienced during most of the past decade, lawyers and unskilled ditch-diggers alike are forced to beg for scraps and live in homeless shelters.
Given this harsh reality, the conservative claim that personal economic well-being is a matter of “pure will” appears ludicrous to say the least. But how did such a patently absurd doctrine become so widely accepted in the first place?
I believe this view owes its currency to the fact that it flatters the prejudices of the affluent (not coincidentally, the very people who own the press as well as the majority of our politicians). If, as the conservative theory holds, destitution is the result of flawed values and bad work habits, then it stands to reason that wealth is the natural fruit of honest toil and moral rectitude. The conservative explanation for poverty thus confirms an age-old delusion of the rich: it tells them that they deserve their immense fortunes, and that there is absolutely no relation between the luxury in which they live and the misery of the downtrodden.
Popularity with the well-heeled does not, of course, make the conservative ideas about pauperism true. Sadly, however, it does make these ideas politically viable. Welfare reforms shaped by such ignorance can only harm the very people the reformers claim they want to help.

Steve Macek’s column appears in the Daily every other Monday.