Arguments about poverty–suspicions about deservingness and general disdain for poor people–are nothing new. In the 15th Century, English Poor Laws forbid those who might be so inclined from “giving alms to the sturdy beggar.” Those attitudes came with the colonists to the New World, augmented by the Calvinist belief that accumulation of wealth signaled a “predestined” moral merit.
George W. Bush–the self-described “Compassionate Conservative”–pushed his “faith-based initiative” with language that equated poverty with an absence of “middle-class values,” implying that what poor people needed wasn’t better pay or more money, but more faith and better values.
America’s version of capitalism hasn’t helped. As Ezra Klein wrote last June in the New York Times,
The American economy runs on poverty, or at least the constant threat of it. Americans like their goods cheap and their services plentiful and the two of them, together, require a sprawling labor force willing to work tough jobs at crummy wages. On the right, the barest glimmer of worker power is treated as a policy emergency, and the whip of poverty, not the lure of higher wages, is the appropriate response.
Klein was commenting on a proposal for a guaranteed income–not a Universal Basic Income, about which I’ve previously written, but an annual income that would phase out as recipients entered the middle class. Whatever the merits of either of those proposals, it behooves policy folks who care more about governing in the public interest than about keeping transgender kids out of the “wrong” bathroom to revisit some of the more destructive and erroneous beliefs about poor people.
As Klein quite accurately notes, opposition to proposals that would attack poverty by giving poor people money isn’t based on costs, but on benefits.
A policy like this would give workers the power to make real choices. They could say no to a job they didn’t want, or quit one that exploited them. They could, and would, demand better wages, or take time off to attend school or simply to rest. When we spoke, Hamilton tried to sell it to me as a truer form of capitalism. “People can’t reap the returns of their effort without some baseline level of resources,” he said. “If you lack basic necessities with regards to economic well-being, you have no agency. You’re dictated to by others or live in a miserable state.”
But those in the economy with the power to do the dictating profit from the desperation of low-wage workers. One man’s misery is another man’s quick and affordable at-home lunch delivery. “It is a fact that when we pay workers less and don’t have social insurance programs that, say, cover Uber and Lyft drivers, we are able to consume goods and services at lower prices,” Hilary Hoynes, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley, where she also co-directs the Opportunity Lab, told me.
This is the conversation about poverty that we don’t like to have: We discuss the poor as a pity or a blight, but we rarely admit that America’s high rate of poverty is a policy choice, and there are reasons we choose it over and over again. We typically frame those reasons as questions of fairness (“Why should I have to pay for someone else’s laziness?”) or tough-minded paternalism (“Work is good for people, and if they can live on the dole, they would”).
These objections echo the English Poor Laws. Disdainful, financially-comfortable people ignore what we all know–that this country is full of hardworking people who are kept poor by very low wages, bad luck, and policy choices that favor the disdainful.
We know the absence of child care and affordable housing and decent public transit makes work, to say nothing of advancement, impossible for many. We know people lose jobs they value because of mental illness or physical disability or other factors beyond their control. We are not so naïve as to believe near-poverty and joblessness to be a comfortable condition or an attractive choice.
Most Americans don’t think of themselves as benefiting from the poverty of others–but of course, as Klein points out, we do. So we object to proposals to ameliorate poverty with lectures about
how the government is subsidizing indolence, paeans to the character-building qualities of low-wage labor, worries that the economy will be strangled by taxes or deficits, anger that Uber and Lyft rides have gotten more expensive, and sympathy for the struggling employers who can’t fill open roles rather than for the workers who had good reason not to take those jobs.
We haven’t come very far from the 15th Ceentury.