February 13, 2009

Commentary:

More Americans Join

By Annette Fuentes
New America Media

“Having been poor is no shame, but being ashamed of it, is.”

-Ben Franklin

We’ve come a long way from Ben Franklin’s view of poverty as, if not a state of grace, then certainly no badge of dishonor. As the United States spirals toward a seeming second great depression, “the poor” are conspicuous by their virtual absence in the news media’s coverage or — or politicians lip service to — the increasingly hard times Americans face. Instead of “the poor,” we get “low-income” and “working families” and other more palatable terms for an economic state-of-being that most Americans would prefer not to acknowledge.

“As people do focus group testing, they don’t score well if they say they want to help poor people. It’s a word that most liberal and progressive groups shy away from. All their data show it’s not a popular term,” says Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. “If you talk about helping working families and low-income people, that’s different. So if you talk about SCHIP [the State Child Health Insurance Program], you describe it as helping kids in families earning less than $20,000 a year. If you say, ‘We’re going to give a subsidy to poor families for health care,’ no one will support it.”

It wasn’t always so, notes U.C. Berkeley professor and labor expert Harley Shaiken. The 1960s featured a focus on the poor and poverty, with such landmarks as Michael Harrington’s 1962 book The Other America, which inspired the War on Poverty programs of Lyndon Johnson. The country’s poverty rate had reached an extraordinary 22 percent for individuals in the late 1950s, and the government made policies that slashed that rate almost in half by the mid-1970s. But there was a backlash against the poor and government programs to assist them that has reverberated for the last 40 years. “The poor became invisible. Politically not much has been done to address the core issues of people at the bottom,” Shaiken says.

Being poor is considered an individual failure in a successful society, he notes, but when failure becomes a collective experience, attitudes may begin to change. “This downturn is so severe that a huge chunk of the population now faces the credible prospect of becoming poor—of losing a home, losing a job, not being able to afford college for your kids. The way I phrase, it’s not that it’s going to happen to everyone, but it credibly could. So many know a relative, a friend in this situation. Millions are facing being poor in an affluent society,” Shaiken says. “We can’t think of it as an individual failing when so many are in the situation. Now, the new reality is that to be poor is the consequence of poor policy.”

A corollary to the invisibility of the poor is the invisibility of the rich, a natural consequence of Americans aversion to acknowledge class distinctions. Especially as the gap between the super rich and the rest of us has grown into a Grand Canyon of income inequality over the last two decades. “We don’t talk about class. We don’t talk about the poor or the underclass. We don’t talk about the working class,” says Geoffrey Nunberg, professor of information science at UC Berkeley. “And we don’t have the ability to talk about the rich. We have this idea that we’re all middle class, so there’s a refusal to talk about a class that is so far from the rest of us. Even the rich don’t want to acknowledge that they’re rich.”

Who knows how deep the national and global economic downturn will go? For those at the top, the titans of Lehman Brothers and Citicorp, reduced circumstances mean something different than it does for the laid off auto worker. As more auto workers and Walmart clerks and Google technicians queue up at the unemployment line and at the food pantry doors, will disdain for “the poor” give way to class resentment at the hedge fund manipulators and government regulators who enabled their schemes?

“The recession was not sudden. We had it over a year. But the moment it burst onto wider consciousness, people began to wonder, ‘How are we going to make it? They don’t have time to be angry. But when this sinks in, there may be anger,” says Harley Shaiken. “If a ship is sinking and you’re in the water, you just worry about swimming. But then the anger comes when you think, ‘I wasn’t steering the ship.’”

Author Richard Rodriguez is less optimistic. “All the media coverage is on people losing ground, falling — not on those who are already poor. When poverty was associated with racism as a reason for poverty, the idea of poverty—or the poor—was acceptable. When it’s seen as a failure of the individual, our Protestant culture is not tolerant, even when the poor are children.”

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