Time to bring fighting poverty back into the Democratic agenda

In the movie The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), when the lead character’s girlfriend suggests that he has outgrown his flashy but slowwitted brother, he tells her, “Italians don’t outgrow people. They outgrow clothes.”

Democrats, on the other hand, do seem to outgrow people: They certainly outgrew the poor.

Like so many other Democratic retreats, this one came in response to right wing attacks: As I’ve noted before, for over 30 years, the political right has been waging a propaganda war against the poor.  And make no mistake: It’s been a brutal attack: A war of belittlement, designed to redefine poverty as sin. And not the type of sin you might expect — that of a wealthy society that tolerates bitter poverty among a shockingly large number of its citizens, but, instead, the sins of the poor themselves: People successfully redefined, at least for a time, in the view of a large percentage of the population, as lazy, irresponsible loafers, predominantly black, of course, feeding at society’s trough.

That little of this carefully constructed stereotype has ever been true (many more whites than blacks are poor, a very high percentage of America’s poor work, and among those who don’t work a very high percentage are single mothers) is beside the point: The bottom line is — and when we talk about poverty, it’s the bottom line that matters — the slanderers won. And as a result, the concerns of the poor have largely been relegated to the political dustbin.

As this attack unfolded, for the most part, Democrats, the traditional political representatives of the poor, didn’t fight back against the slander, at least not very hard.  Instead, the poor, as a class, became increasingly persona non grata as a part of the party’s public face.  And by the time Bill Clinton helped to end “welfare as we know it,” it had become the nearly undisputed conventional wisdom of the Democratic Party that publicly supporting the interests of poor people was bad politics — which, in all honesty, if you strip the issue clean of moral encumbrances, it probably at the time was.

Since then, with the exception of an all too brief period following the tragedy in New Orleans, words like poor and poverty have largely been exiled from the political vocabularies of Democrats and Republicans alike.  Today’s Democrats talk about the problems of the middle class, not of the poor. (There’s a certain irony in this, given that most poor people vote Democratic, whereas a majority of the middle class votes Republican.) 

This shouldn’t be taken, however, as suggesting a moral equivalency between the two major political parties on the subject of poverty.  Without a doubt, Democrats, overall, have been far more responsive to the needs of the poor than Republicans.  For example, the increases in the minimum wage pushed through during the Clinton administration, together with Clinton’s full employment economy, eventually helped to significantly reduce the poverty level — an achievement, sadly, quickly made moot by Bush’s blundering and disinterest.

But with that said, it is also true that helping the poor, in recent years, has been a largely defensive process for Democrats, limited to trying to minimize the harm done by Bush and the GOP in Congress (no small job); taking the fight to the next level, and actually advocating affirmative steps to be taken for the specific purpose of fighting poverty just hasn’t been in the political cards.  In fact, with the noteworthy exception of John Edwards and his “two Americas” theme, few political leaders in either party spend any appreciable time discussing poverty today. 

But, as an excellent recent article in the British newspaper the Guardian points out, avoiding the subject hasn’t made poverty go away — much the opposite, 

A shocking 37 million Americans live in poverty. That is 12.7 per cent of the population - the highest percentage in the developed world. They are found from the hills of Kentucky to Detroit’s streets, from the Deep South of Louisiana to the heartland of Oklahoma.

And things have only gotten worse under the tender mercies of one George W. Bush — big surprise there: As the article points out, every year since 2001 has seen the number of poor grow, this notwithstanding the so-called economic recovery.

Yet, leading Democrats remain reluctant to embrace the subject with anything approaching full vigor, presumably because they still regard it as a political loser.  So, let’s take a look at that question: Setting aside for now the obvious moral issues, let’s examine from the standpoint of practical politics whether the underlying assumption itself — that caring too much about poor people is bad for business, political business that is — is even correct today. 

A lot has changed since fighting poverty first became a political leper.  For one thing, largely unnoticed, the public face of poverty has shifted away from Ronald Reagan’s largely apocryphal, but politically compelling, “Welfare Queen” and moved more in the direction of today’s all too real working poor.  As the Guardian story continues,

Under President George W Bush an extra 5.4 million have slipped below the poverty line. Yet they are not a story of the unemployed or the destitute. Most have jobs. Many have two. Amos Lumpkins has work and his children go to school. But the economy, stripped of worker benefits like healthcare, is having trouble providing good wages.

Even families with two working parents are often one slice of bad luck - a medical bill or factory closure - away from disaster. The minimum wage of $5.15 (£2.95) an hour has not risen since 1997 and, adjusted for inflation, is at its lowest since 1956. The gap between the haves and the have-nots looms wider than ever. Faced with rising poverty rates, Bush’s trillion-dollar federal budget recently raised massive amounts of defence spending for the war in Iraq and slashed billions from welfare programmes.

*   *   *

In America, to be poor is a stigma. In a country which celebrates individuality and the goal of giving everyone an equal opportunity to make it big, those in poverty are often blamed for their own situation. Experience on the ground does little to bear that out. When people are working two jobs at a time and still failing to earn enough to feed their families, it seems impossible to call them lazy or selfish. There seems to be a failure in the system, not the poor themselves.

It is an impression backed up by many of those mired in poverty in Oklahoma and Kentucky. Few asked for handouts. Many asked for decent wages. ‘It is unfair. I am working all the time and so what have I done wrong?’ says Freda Lee. But the economy does not seem to be allowing people to make a decent living. It condemns the poor to stay put, fighting against seemingly impossible odds or to pull up sticks and try somewhere else.

In a political age where image is everything, the image of America’s poor has undergone a quiet extreme makeover.  True, poverty is still largely ignored by the media in this country.  But when stories are reported about poor people, and, in fairness, sometimes they are, the hook today is almost always the working poor.  And surely that must change the political equilibrium, at least a little. 

From the standpoint of practical politics, it’s one thing to be seen as defending the right of a lazy “Welfare Queen” to gorge on the public dole; it’s quite another to be viewed as the champion of Amos Lumpkins, discussed in the Guardian article, who, despite working for a living, can’t afford to provide his family with a decent lifestyle.  As the article describes,

The Lumpkins live at the definition of the back of beyond, in a hollow at the top of a valley at the end of a long and muddy dirt road. It is strewn with litter. Packs of stray dogs prowl around, barking at strangers. There is no telephone and since their pump broke two weeks ago Candy has collected water from nearby springs. Oblivious to it all, her five-year-old daughter Amy runs barefoot on a wooden porch frozen by a midwinter chill.

It is a vision of deep and abiding poverty.

I have to wonder: Is it really so far-fetched to believe that having the Democratic Party viewed as the friend to these 37 million poor Americans, trying in reasonable ways to improve their lives, just might, rather than being a political kiss of death, actually be a vote getter?

No, we shouldn’t get all squishy here: This isn’t the mid-1960s and few Americans would favor a massive War on Poverty.  

But how about something less grandiose?  What about Democratic politicians who talk about America’s increasing poverty rate in a serious and sympathetic way — proposing lean ‘n’ mean initiatives to improve the lot of the poor — things like increasing the now disgracefully inadequate minimum wage, providing greater public investment in job creation and, yes, some increased spending for things like nutritional, educational and healthcare support, especially for children? (In fairness, many Democrats do advocate these things, especially minimum wage increases, but they rarely do so in the context of advocating a renewed push to fight poverty in any systematic way.) 

Maybe I’m nuts, but it seems to me that this might just prove to be good politics, as well as good humanity. 

And here I have a gift for the Machiavellians among us — you know — those folks who can’t enjoy a good political discussion without triangulating this and wedging that. They’ll be happy to hear that poverty has the potential of becoming a major wedge issue within the Republican alliance, particularly among Evangelical Christians.  In fact, a substantial rift already exists among Evangelicals on this subject.  On the one hand, there is a large, though rarely heard from in the media, group who believe that following the word of God requires doing things like fighting poverty and confronting global warming.  While, on the other hand, there is the, often more vocal, James Dobson, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell contingent, who continue to insist, in substance, that what Jesus really cared about most was tax cuts for the rich.

A true Democratic Party commitment to battling poverty would drive a big ugly wedge right into the heart of this conflict.

And, yes, making this kind of cold political calculation, on what should be seen simply as a moral imperative, is distasteful.  But when you’re talking about kids going to bed hungry, some without proper shelter even, in the richest nation the world has ever known, screw it, whatever will get the job done is fine.

But there’s another, one might say more wholesome, potential political advantage to the Democratic Party in openly embracing the fight against poverty: It’s the perfect vehicle for framing the issue of Republican corruption into a broader moral context.  Think about it.  Why hasn’t the public become more indignant over the stunning revelations coming out, one after another, after another, after another, of corrupt practices by both the Bush Administration and congressional Republicans?

Sure, Bush is unpopular, and the polls show people think Congress is populated by a bunch of crooks (on both sides of the aisle), and, true, the generic congressional poll results keep tilting in the Democrat’s favor.  But where’s the passion?  As Bill Bennett would say in a different context (when he’s not busy screaming “come on, baby, Momma needs a new pair of shoes”), where’s the outrage?

And, yes, the major media coverage of the unfolding scandals, especially attempts to make the congressional bribery scandal bipartisan, has been atrocious.  But more is at play here than that.

The truth is that political corruption strikes many, maybe most, voters as old hat.  Politicians are crooks?  So what else is new?  Tales of bribery, in and of themselves, while certainly seen as reprehensible by voters, may not be enough to generate the sort of perfect storm it will take for the Democrats to take control of Congress in 2006 and win the White House in 2008.  We need something more — the moral context that will frame the wrongdoing, not just as bad in itself, but as harmful to others in a morally repugnant way.

It’s what we lawyers call the element of causation.  In a tort lawsuit, such as a claim for personal injury, it isn’t good enough to prove wrongdoing.  You also have to prove that the wrongdoing caused harm.  As Judge Cardozo famously observed, “Proof of the negligence in the air, so to speak, will not do.” 

Well, proof of corruption in the air, so to speak, also may not do.  But what about corruption that’s directly tied to injuries inflicted against our society’s most vulnerable citizens?  That has a little more of a bite to it, don’t you think?   

Exactly why do you think Republicans in Congress have continuously refused to raise the minimum wage since 1997, even to keep up with inflation?  Do you think even they honestly believe their own claims that it would damage job creation?  Of course not; they’re corrupt, not stupid.  Like the rest of us, they saw that just the opposite happened when the rate was increased in the 1990s.  No, they oppose increasing the wage floor because a low wage economy is good for their wealthy sponsors.  And if that means more and more kids end up living in poverty, hey, fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.  After all, there are free corporate jet rides to take and all expense paid junkets in the Caribbean to be enjoyed.

Republican corruption and increasing American poverty aren’t strangers passing in the night — they’re two sides of the same dirty coin.  You can’t piss away billions-upon-billions of dollars in shabby political payoffs, the way this president and Congress have been doing, while at the same time continuing to whittle away at what few pennies remain in social spending for poor and working class families, and avoid the conclusion that the one is tied to the other.

And there, Democrats, is the moral context that’s been missing from the corruption story.  The only question now is whether you have the courage and the wisdom to grab hold of it.   

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7 Responses to “Time to bring fighting poverty back into the Democratic agenda”

  1. Again Says:

    Sure, Bush is unpopular, and the polls show people think Congress is populated by a bunch of crooks (on both sides of the aisle), and, true, the generic congressional poll results keep tilting in the Democrat’s favor. But where’s the passion?

    Great song of indifference

    I don’t mind if the culture crumbles, I don’t mind if religion stumbles
    I can’t hear the speakers mumble, and I don’t care at all
    I don’t care if the third world fries, it’s hotter there I’m not surprised
    Baby I can watch whole nations die, and I don’t care at all
    I don’t mind, I don’t mind, I don’t mind, I don’t mind,
    I don’t mind, I don’t mind, I don’t mind at all

    (Bob Geldof)

  2. hizzhoner Says:

    Thought provoking article. But one bit of information kept gnawing away at me while I read the article.

    Remember Grover Norquist?

    Yes, he is credited with the quote, “My goal is to shrink government down to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub.” (Although I heard him on CSPAN deny ever making that quote) . If we look up government in the Republican “code book” it means Welfare as well as any social program of the New Deal era. Hence, the “pissing away” of billions and the slow starvation of all social programs has been deliberate on the part of the Republicans.

    Bankrupting the country is a strategic goal of the neoconservatives so that the only things left for taxes to pay are Defense and the Interest on the National Debt. That’s the society the neocons want and the one they have commissioned George W. Bush to charm us into.

    I’m not sure they’ve gamed this out to the logical conclusion though. At least, I hope they haven’t. If it plays out to the logical conclusion then we are headed for a new fuedal system in the United States, and, maybe, even world-wide. They can’t be that evil.

    Can they?


  3. humpty d. Says:

    Here in Pennsylvania Lynn Swann is running for governor, he is against raising the minimum wage.

    This issue should be at the top of every democrat’s agenda, not non-issues such as gay marriage.

    Detroit’s homeless were given a 3 day superbowl party so the privileged revelers wouldn’t have to see them, Katrina victims are living in tent cities and have to use portapotties, while insurance companies reject their claims. To paraphrase Kanye West, George Bush doesn’t care for poor people.

  4. humpty d. Says:

    To paraphrase Kanye West, George Bush doesn’t care for poor people.

    Katrina victims are living in tent cities & have to use portapotties while wealthy insurance companiess reject their claims. Detroit’s homeless were swept off the streets for three days during the Superbowl celebration so that wealthy revelers didn’t have to be exposed to them. A former Steeler, Lynn Swann, is running for governor of my state & he objects to raising the minimum wage.

  5. Chuck Says:

    Just a short one, as I’m too full of beer to do much more, & I’m a 2 finger typist; please read this 1944 peice by Henry Wallace on Fascism:


    It has much to say to us today.

  6. Jess Wundrun Says:

    Hizzoner, I’m afraid that they are that evil. If you remove the idea of national borders and patriotism, their ideas make sense as they’ll be at the top of the heap regardless. I think that’s why they push the flag and patriotism so strongly. How can you accuse someone of having only self-interest over national interest when he’s wearing a flag lapel pin?

  7. alwayshope Says:

    This is a great piece. It is an issue we should push hard with our representatives. The “blame the victim” mentality must be exposed for the twisted logic that it is. If this adminstration has taught us anything, it is that we are on our own. The safety nets are being dismantled and filled with farm-raised birds for Cheney to slaughter from his SUV. One thing is sure, the politicians are worried about this year’s elections. Frist showed that he can be swayed by angry constituents. We need to take advantage of our voice right now and write and call our reps and demand they return opportunity, fairness and governance to the people. We’ve got to use democracy while we have it. Write and ask them to, every night before they go to sleep and every morning when they wake up, think about the poor, struggling Americans out there who are trying their hardest to walk that
    tightrope, without a net.
    Ask your rep, “what are you going to do if one of them falls, blame them for being to lazy to resist gravity?”

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