Mythologizing Poverty

If poverty comes up, you can be guaranteed some right winger is going to propose that it doesn’t exist in the USA. The latest permutation of this silliness comes from this John Tamny character, who evidently writes for Forbes. Since he was interviewed on the Daily Show I thought I was watching some seriously bleak comedy, but I guess he’s serious. You can see the ‘interview‘ here.

According to Tamny, we don’t really have poverty in the USA. He knows this because he does not see huge swathes of people in the USA who look like concentration camp victims, e.g. visibly malnourished and on the brink of death due to starvation. It’s wrong to view Tamny as an anomaly here. The pretense that poverty is a huge left wing contrivance is an old heap of conservative nonsense, not a new one. Gavin McInnes proposed more or less the exact same thing back in November, claiming that the poor in America are really just slovenly hedonists what with their child-having and TV-watching. Tamny and McInnes are preceded by even more strongly established right wing pundits like John Stossel, who I guess is famous for something, and often remarks that the poor in America live better than the poor in prior eras.

It’s pretty easy to brush this kind of thing of empirically. There are homeless people, plenty of them, and they live in and amongst people who have stable housing. They can speak, and do, and we’re all well aware of them; where these people go when conservatives willfully declare there’s no poverty in America, I have no idea. But even beyond the most abject forms of deprivation, there are the working poor and the barely stable, and those whose lives hover precariously on or near the poverty line. How do we know that those distinctions matter, that they’re materially impactful? Lots of ways. To quote the response Bruenig and I put together when McInnes’ piece came out:

…we can imagine McInnes’ point like this: if ‘poverty’ is only nominal, we shouldn’t be able to see it as a label track with any significant indicators, such as health, mental health, life expectancy, early pregnancy, etc. If the label ‘poverty’ does track with indicators like those, we know those living in poverty are materially distinct from the rest of the population, meaning that McInnes’ argument that the poor are basically as well off as anyone else is nonsense.

Living at or up to twice the poverty line is correlated with a loss of 8.2 years of perfect health. The rate of unintended pregnancy among women at or near the federal poverty line is five times that of women at the highest income bracket. Poverty contributes significantly to mortality. Asthma is more common in people living below the federal poverty level than those living above it by a significant margin.

In other words, poverty tracks pretty consistently with signs of real suffering. In this way we can be sure it’s not a useless label constructed to further left wing agendas. It’s a meaningful descriptor of people’s actual lives.

So what’s at stake for conservatives who define poverty out of existence? We can see that people who live under a certain threshold suffer in ways those living above that threshold do not, so why continue to insist that their suffering is immaterial, and that only suffering that coincidentally exists outside of our sphere of influence is worthy of attention? The obvious answer is that the don’t want to be expected to aid poor people in any way, so they say the only ‘poor’ people worth aiding are those who just happen to exist solely in the realm of National Geographic pictures they’ve seen.

The morally horrible dimensions of this are probably immediately clear. But I think these people have a disturbingly good shot at convincing good-hearted people that there’s really no work to be done when they point out that poor families have televisions or two bedrooms or whatever, and so contrary to that project, I’d like to think for a moment about the Christian ethical implications of this kind of erasure of poverty.

For centuries of Christianity, the special station of the poor in God’s heart was linked with their experience of suffering. Nowadays, much work has been done to sort of cloud that link, but we cannot forget that the suffering of certain classes of people is uniquely important to God. When Christ feeds the four thousand, he does so because he worries they will collapse from hunger on their journeys home if he doesn’t. Both their privation and the pursuant suffering is important to him, and so it should be to us: it’s not enough to be concerned, therefore, with particular markers, but with real suffering.

And Christ himself speaks of this kind of context-based understanding of love. Consider Matthew 25:31-41:

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

When we think of the ‘least’, we realize that Christ cannot be referring strictly to the absolute least, that is, the person or people with the absolute least in the totality of human history — the logistics of finding that person or people alone would be staggering and limiting on the imperative itself. Instead, it seems to me  He’s referring to the least that we all have access to, in every location, at all times: the least in our communities, the least among us. These people may not be identical in their need or suffering to the least in other communities, locations, or times; nonetheless, they are the least here and now. (We can think of this category as analogous to Rawls’ least advantaged, contextualized as a class.) We know the least by their suffering, and we know what suffering is exceptional in our communities in typically measurable ways: we can track unusually high rates of illness, food instability, hunger, and violence.

Unsurprisingly, all those things track with poverty, even right here in the USA. The bizarro right wing project of erasing poverty with the goal of turning totally away from the suffering of the least in our communities is thus a pretty sick-minded one, in my opinion.