The Current Either-Or Choice in “Solutions” to Poverty

Aaron Barlow’s post highlights a major difference between how Progressives and those on the Far Right have sought to address endemic poverty. Progressives have been accused, sometimes with much justification, of being willing to waste millions on wrong-headed “solutions” to poverty. On the other hand, the Far Right has essentially ignored solutions and has turned poverty into another source of corporate profits. One can argue that some Progressive solutions ironically and tragically made some problems worse. On the other hand, one would be very hard-pressed to argue that any Far Right alternatives to anti-poverty programs have made anything better–except for how they have improved corporate profits and shareholder dividends.

There is no “culture of poverty,” no cultural transformation that is the magic bullet that will eradicate poverty. But there are very clearly defined broader political and cultural attitudes constructed around notions of poverty that have made it much more difficult to mitigate and to escape. The Far Right dismantled the Great Society by highlighting its ostensible lack of results–that is, its failure to eliminate poverty (in two decades or less!) and the ways in which some anti-poverty programs seemed actually to be entrenching dependence on government. The Far Right persuasively made the case that the “rest of us” were supporting “free-loaders” with our hard-earned tax dollars. Indeed, the Far Right very successfully made the case that spending part of the national wealth on the poor was not just a waste of money but actually immoral. So, despite its supposed “liberal bias,” the mainstream media has been so conditioned by the Far Right’s demonization of anti-poverty programs that it has largely ignored the very terrible social, economic, and moral costs–the hypocrisy–of the Far Right’s continuing efforts to transform the exploitation poverty into a legitimate corporate enterprise.

In the Victorian era, when indebtedness was a crime, we used to put the poor in workhouses where, regardless of age, they worked off their debts in conditions so appalling that being sent to the workhouse was in many ways worse than being sent to prison. Today, for most of our middle-class, indebtedness has been transformed into a lifelong condition that has somehow become synonymous with upward mobility. Generally, the poor are no longer openly exploited in the manner in which they once were, because that sort of naked exploitation might arouse the conscience of the nation. Instead, the poor have been turned into commodities that are cycled–at taxpayer expense but for immense corporate profit–through privatized schools and prisons. And, when they are not imprisoned, they “launder” the monies generated by the “underground economies” of their neighborhoods through corporate franchises that rent furniture and electronics and that provide “pay-day” loans at exorbitant rates. When the Mob did this stuff, we were able to recognize its criminality, and we did not confuse it with entrepreneurship.

 

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