To My Pen Pal About Poverty in America
By Frank Fear
A Review of $2.00 a Day:
Living on Almost Nothing In America
By Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer
My critiques of America are misguided, so my pen pal tells me. I underestimate America’s greatness and overplay its challenges. He is dedicated to helping me “understand.”
Yet another of his missives arrived a few weeks ago. It came at a time when I was reading, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America (by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer. Boston: Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015).
It made me think about an omission in our discourse. My pen pal has never brought up the topic of poverty in America, not even once. Perhaps he thinks we’ve solved it. Maybe it’s not a priority for keeping America great.
Either way, he’s not alone in looking elsewhere. Poverty has fallen off America’s radar screen. We hardly even use the word these days. We prefer talking about tax cuts or referring to “working Americans.”
What a difference from the days of my youth! In 1964, President Johnson Lyndon made his intent clear and expressed it directly. He declared “A War on Poverty.”
What changed? Starting in the 1970’s, Governor (later president) Reagan had a bee under his bonnet for the “evils of welfare.” He promulgated his angst visually with the image of “The Welfare Queen.” Later, President Clinton signed a bill ‘reforming’ the welfare system.
Well, America got reform. And it American changed … for the worse.
“How so?” my pen pan will certainly ask. I’ll respond by quoting $2.00 a Day (p. xxiii).
“America’s cash welfare program that caught people when they fell—was not merely replaced with the 1996 welfare reform (note: Clinton’s reform); it was very nearly destroyed. In its place arose a different kind of safety net, one that provides a powerful hand up to some—the working poor—but offers much less to others, that is, those who can’t manage to find or keep a job. This book is based on what happens when a government safety net is built on the assumption of full-time, stable employment at a living wage combines with a low-wage labor market that fails to deliver on any of the above. It is this toxic alchemy…that is spurring the increasing numbers of $2-a-day poor in America.”
That’s why (I’ll tell my pen pal) it’s precisely the right time for poverty to re-emerge as a public policy priority. $2 a Day should be the rallying call for that movement. “There can be no exceptional America (an image that my friend believes in so thoroughly) if that circumstance remains a reality,” I’ll write.
Misguided public policies need to be corrected, I’ll continue. We need to name, and then proclaim, those policies for exactly what they are … heartless. What we need today, I’ll write, is for American patriots to step forward—just as Marian Wright Edelman did in 1995 when she chastised President Clinton in an “open letter” published in The Washington Post. In that letter, Edelman quoted Franklin D. Roosevelt’s powerful admonition: “Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the constant omission of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”
I’d then remind my pen pal of a conversation that I had with another colleague nearly thirty years ago. The colleague had been invited by then-President George H.W. Bush to serve on the commission to plan the Points of Light Foundation. “Points of Light?” I asked emphatically over dinner one night. “It sounds like a bait-and-switch, a flowery label used as a ploy – a ploy to reduce government support for those who need it most–to get people “off the government dole.”
My pen pal will bristle at that assertion, just as my other colleague did that night. But I’ll be prepared to bolster my argument by drawing on another passage from $2.00 a Day (p. 102).
“Private charity in America is often viewed as the little engine that could. It chugs along admirably, providing billions of dollars in aid to the poor each year…. Yet, even in America—and even for those who are adept at gleaning all that private charity has to offer—it can’t even begin to replicate, much less replace, what the government does. Private charity is a complement to government action, something that bolsters the government safety net.”
Charity is important. Self-help efforts are vital. But government support is the cornerstone. It’s not the cornerstone now – and that needs to change in a responsible, progressive way.
“How so?” my pen pal will certainly ask. In response, I’ll offer three steps as proposed in $2.00 a Day (see Conclusion: Where, Then, From Here? Pp. 157-174).
The first step is to scrap the term, “reform.’ Welfare needs to be replaced. That’s not a new idea, I’ll tell my pen pal. It was the cornerstone of David Ellwood’s influential thinking from twenty years ago. It needs to be resurrected.
The second step is to ground a replacement strategy in four American values: 1) autonomy of the individual, 2) the virtue of work, 3) the primacy of the family, and 4) a desire for community. Basing policies on those pillars will go a long way toward integrating the poor in society, rather than separating them from society – the unfortunate reality that exists today.
The third step is to put in place policies that accomplish three outcomes: 1) provide opportunities for all to work, 2) enable parents to raise kids in a place of their own, and 3) strengthen the financial safety net so that people never go without.
I have faith in what Eden and Shaffer propose, I’ll say, because I believe it’s the foundation of good public policy.
He’ll scoff at that declaration! I know he will. Why do I think so? One reason is what I learned from reading a provocative article written recently by Kevin Quealy, published in The New York Times. Quealy talks about how political elites influence public opinion, especially with regard to topics that are complex, technical, or off-the-radar screen.
The political elites to whom my friend pays attention don’t talk about poverty. They talk about cutting taxes, bolstering corporate America, reducing government regulations, managing budget deficits, correcting trade imbalances, curbing terrorism, bolstering defense … but never, ever about poverty.
Poverty has been handled. It’s being dealt with by non-profits, churches, and philanthropists. “We in America are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land. The poor-house is vanishing among us.” Herbert Hoover, August 11, 1928.
I’ll tell my friend that he’s misguided, that America needs to respond in a prudent, humane way. America can’t possibly be great if people are living on $2 a day.
Don’t you agree?
Frank A. Fear is professor emeritus, Michigan State University. Frank is a frequent contributor to the LA Progressive and also writes about issues that intersect sport and society. You can read him at The Sports Column at http://www.thesportscol.com/category/frank-fear/ He is a long time independent and active with Independent Voting.
A Letter from a Friend in Response
What can I say?
I think your article is brilliantly written in the most honest, clear and down to earth way. A humane and compelling format/conversation with “the other”. No demonization. No negating. Very intimate and political, touching and smart-a powerful personal/political organizing piece!
You locate poverty (the unspoken and criminally ignored white elephant in our country and in the world) structurally and not as a new phenomenon that we can just blame on one party – or the other – or on one leader or the other. Poverty is institutionally located within a quagmire of ongoing unjust, inhumane policies that have and are destroying millions of lives, families, children, every day. And as you say, which must be thrown out and replaced-not reformed.
As a longtime political activist, I see the – up from the ground -National Independent Political Movement (IV.org) -working in concert with the many groups and individuals nationwide to build together to bring about this change!
Between your distribution networks and ours, I hope your piece reaches endless numbers of people hungry for a humane and sane direction to follow in this period.
Thank you Frank.
June Hirsh is an organizer with IndependentVoting.org. She lives in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.
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One thought on “To My Pen Pal About Poverty in America”
Your comment about ‘heartless’ policy resonates deeply with me. It appears that American society’s predominant political/economic priority, based on who we have put in control of our federal government, is having ‘more’ with little attention for what ‘more’ means or for whom. The spiraling concentration of wealth in our country requires more people to have less so that fewer people can have more. While the distribution of wealth is often framed as an economic issue, I see it as a moral issue, and I’m certainly not alone. The religious right has replaced scripture with political ideology to rationalize the view that wealth is a benefit of faith without acknowledging that wealth concentration requires economic policies that fuel – and institutionalize – poverty. This, to me, is morally repugnant. I don’t believe we will ever be a great country again unless we find a way to relocate our heart.