Dehumanizing the Poor

Paul Krugman can generally be counted upon to tell it like it is, and yesterday’s column in the New York Times was no exception. In the first couple of paragraphs, he used the recent upheaval in Hong Kong as an example of the disdain with which affluent folks in developed countries regard the working poor, and quoted Leung Chun-ying, the Beijing-backed leader of Hong Kong, who inadvertently blurted out the real reason the regime is resisting giving pro-democracy demonstrators a voice:

With open voting, “You would be talking to half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than $1,800 a month. Then you would end up with that kind of politics and policies” — policies, presumably, that would make the rich less rich and provide more aid to those with lower incomes.

So Mr. Leung is worried about the 50 percent of Hong Kong’s population that, he believes, would vote for bad policies because they don’t make enough money. This may sound like the 47 percent of Americans who Mitt Romney said would vote against him because they don’t pay income taxes and, therefore, don’t take responsibility for themselves, or the 60 percent that Representative Paul Ryan argued pose a danger because they are “takers,” getting more from the government than they pay in. Indeed, these are all basically the same thing.

For the political right has always been uncomfortable with democracy. No matter how well conservatives do in elections, no matter how thoroughly free-market ideology dominates discourse, there is always an undercurrent of fear that the great unwashed will vote in left-wingers who will tax the rich, hand out largess to the poor, and destroy the economy.

As Krugman notes, this attitude is anything but new. If there is a staple of human politics, it is the tendency to demonize the “other.” Gays, Jews, African-Americans, Muslims, non-Ayrans– the identity of the marginalized may change, but the political and psychological need to draw a distinction between those who are righteous and “deserving” and those who are not seemingly remains constant.

These days, demonizing racial or religious minority groups is publicly frowned upon (although privately indulged), but blaming the poor for their poverty is seen as analysis rather than bigotry.

It’s bad enough that this moral opprobrium prevents us from implementing ameliorative economic policies, but it also retards our efforts to fix public education.

On Thursday, the Mind Trust and the United Negro College Fund hosted a lunch. The keynote speaker was one Roland Fryer. He was brilliant. Fryer–the youngest African-American ever tenured at Harvard–is an economist who studies education, and he reported the results of a large-scale experiment he and others recently conducted in Houston and Denver.  (I’m told his entertaining and informative speech will be shown on Channel 16, and for those who missed it, it would be well worth watching.)

Fryer made a number of important points, but the basic message was simple and profound: poor children–including poor black children–are every bit as capable of learning as their more affluent peers. (Fryer himself grew up in a poor neighborhood in Houston; he never knew his mother and his father was imprisoned.) When poor kids are given good teachers, when their schools support those teachers appropriately, and when the teachers expect those children to learn and excel, performance improves dramatically.

If we want to live in a society where the gulf between the haves and have-nots is deep, where resentments fester and plutocrats retreat ever farther into their gated communities–if we want to inhabit a society focused upon what divides us rather than what we have in common–we just need to keep doing what we’ve been doing.


  1. “As Krugman notes, this attitude is anything but new. If there is a staple of human politics, it is the tendency to demonize the “other.” Gays, Jews, African-Americans, Muslims, non-Ayrans– the identity of the marginalized may change, but the political and psychological need to draw a distinction between those who are righteous and “deserving” and those who are not seemingly remains constant.”

    I believe Sheila’s comment above fits nicely into a Facebook post I found this morning regarding protests to be staged by conservatives against what they report as, “President Obama is issuing 34 million green cards to undocumented immigrants.” Per Snopes, this is regarding a request to print green cards due to “a possible future immigration reform initiative requirements” and a resulting “surge” in applications. It is a preparitory proposal, not an action to arbitrarily begin issuing green cards to individuals. Immigrants are another conservative issue regarding minorities considered to be a financial burden to this country. We who think and research information before jumping into issues, are well aware this is another scare tactic by the conservative, extreme right-wing, GOP and the 1% prior to the November 4th election. That group is in actuality the financial burden borne by all of us and will continue till they are voted out of office. November 4th is coming and with it our chance to begin clearing them out; please do not let this opportunity pass.

  2. Democracy is a huge threat to those who feel entitled to power. That’s why oligarchy has always flown low over us and constantly threatens freedom. It’s waiting for us to drop our guard. It’s testing our diligence. It’s searching for the chink in our armor because oligarchs know that here they must be voted in. Democracy must choose its own demise. We must be convinced that we are incapable of self rule.

    Those easily led by cultural icons will willingly follow the what they see as the gold ring of power; the notion that those great unwashed, uneducated others will be swept away and the superior race will prevail.

    It’s worked before.

  3. The folks in Hong Kong may be a little smarter than the denizens of the Midwest. It sounds like they might be inclined to vote in their best interests. Here, the politicians, helped along by the right wing media, mix a little fear with some demagoguery and they get lots of people who don’t vote in their best interest. They are in the process of getting the government they deserve.

  4. There are any number of wealthy individuals who are charitable and give generously to lift others out of poverty, ill health, and insufficient education. There likewise are any number of the wealthy individuals (and companies) who believe wealth equals wisdom and entitlement.

    Authorizing mortgages which were over the heads of the borrowers and then selling off those mortgages to other unsuspecting financial institutions were ultimately bad decisions for those institutions, the borrowers, and the entire economy. I much prefer capitalism to other economies but with limits on the greed that overwhelms wisdom, our economy, and the world’s.

    Numerous studies have shown that students in wealthy communities outperform students in poverty. My former boss said this signaled the obvious path to a solution. All we needed to do was to make everyone rich. Someone else put our economy in a similar light, noting that the way to make everyone richer (and more secure) is to make everyone richer. Minimum wage increase anyone?

  5. Those real estate tactics were considered “creative financing”. When I sold my home, my realtor came up with this wonderful deal – IF I would pay $5,000 of the buyer’s closing costs. I told her if she could find a seller to pay $5,000 of my closing costs, I would consider the deal. It bombed:)

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