Poverty Fully an Economic Problem Not a Moral One

As I wrote about in Our Calvinist Beginnings are Showing way back in 2013, there’s a long storied history to our American tendency to see poverty as a moral issue rather than a purely economic one. No writer is better on this topic than Barbara Ehrenreich, author of the essential book “Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” which chronicled her effort at 55 years old to live and try to make ends meet in the shoes of the working poor. Really, it’s a great read and very eye opening about what a fucking hard job it is to be poor in America.

In the Atlantic she once again tries to explain to the moralizers that It is Expensive to Be Poor.

Imagine the worst low pay job you ever had. Imagine you have to do that for years, not while going to school and dreaming of something more lucrative, but for a living – this IS your life. And it is unlikely you will have the luxury of retiring, if for no other reason than you just can’t afford to. Your “retirement” will be enforced by your body just not being able to hump it anymore, or nobody wanting to employ you any further. You are at the mercy of factors very much out of your control and the inevitability of aging.

Although underfunded, the War on Poverty still managed to provoke an intense backlash from conservative intellectuals and politicians.

In their view, government programs could do nothing to help the poor because poverty arises from the twisted psychology of the poor themselves. By the Reagan era, it had become a cornerstone of conservative ideology that poverty is caused not by low wages or a lack of jobs and education, but by the bad attitudes and faulty lifestyles of the poor.

Ehrenreich talks about a 50 year effort to counter the War on Poverty by blaming the poor, but as I show in my essay on the Calvinists, it’s really a 200+ year effort by those who created a moral code establishing work as an act that exalts God and idleness as an insult to the selfsame supernatural being. It’s all a bunch of rubbish, of course, to place religious values on making a living. No more or less so than it is to base scientific teaching on Biblical fiction. There is an essential unenlightened obtuseness to judging people by the economic situation they find themselves in. Like with the teaching of evolution and so many other issues, we were growing out of our medieval superstitions and their simplistic Davey & Goliath morality lessons, then the fundamentalist Bible thumpers grabbed a whole bunch of political power and sent us back 100 years.

The Great Recession should have put the victim-blaming theory of poverty to rest. In the space of only a few months, millions of people entered the ranks of the officially poor—not only laid-off blue-collar workers, but also downsized tech workers, managers, lawyers, and other once-comfortable professionals. No one could accuse these “nouveau poor” Americans of having made bad choices or bad lifestyle decisions. They were educated, hardworking, and ambitious, and now they were also poor—applying for food stamps, showing up in shelters, lining up for entry-level jobs in retail. This would have been the moment for the pundits to finally admit the truth: Poverty is not a character failing or a lack of motivation. Poverty is a shortage of money.

One of the symptoms of this simplistic moralizing is the conservative fetish of blaming poverty on single mothers and the changing mores involving marriage and child bearing. The first letter to the editor I had printed was my letter to the LA Times in response to V.P. Dan Quayle’s ham handed attack on Murphy Brown, a fictional character, for having a baby out of wedlock. Quayle had called it “mocking fathers” for a sit com to portray a well-off professional woman of a certain age trying to raise a baby without a man. The point of my letter was to point out that at that time in 1992 (and more so now) births to unmarried parents outnumbered births to married parents in several European nations and yet they did not have the poverty problems that we do. It’s not and never was about marriage. It was and is about education, opportunity and a society that helps people raise their kids rather than berates them for having them.

A new generation of conservative politicians makes the same mistakes and is discussed in this article in The Wire Blaming Poverty on Single Mothers is a Win-Win for Republicans, Evidence be Damned.  Sen. Marco Rubio, a dead ringer for Dan Quayle if I ever saw one, is citing dubious statistics to make the same claim as his predecessor in false causality claims.

There’s a policy, he said, that “decreases the probability of child poverty by 82 percent.” And, “it isn’t a government program. It’s called marriage.” … Rubio’s claim was “mostly true,” Politifact said, because, while other measures of poverty put the spread differently, the gap is the gap.

And this is where everyone should be screaming from the rooftops: “Correlation isn’t causation!” If you don’t have access to a roof, stand on your desk like you’re in Dead Poet’s Society and bellow, “Just because poverty is more common among the unmarried doesn’t mean it’s a function of being unmarried!” Yell that. Yell that to the heavens!… Sure enough, the poor are more likely to be unmarried now than they were then. But guess what: so is everyone else.

Conservatives love them some marriage (except for gays) so they’ll trot out any statistic they can to prove their point that marriage is good and not marriage is not just sinful it’s also bad. Just like guns make women safer, husbands do to. Husbands with guns are amazing for women, despite the statistics that show in reality that the biggest threat to women are men, especially men with guns.

Beat head against wall, rinse, repeat.

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