- America's Shame
October 19, 2002
The United States is, bar none, the wealthiest country in
the world. We are positively profligate in our expenditure
of the world's resources, and we have more billionaires (by
any currency measure) than the rest of the world.
And yet, about 12% of our population is poor. Yes, the poor
in this country are much wealthier, in raw income, than the
poor of the rest of the world; however, local economies have
to be considered. In our country, it's relatively commonplace
that the poor don't have enough to eat, week by week, month
by month. Not having enough to eat is a relatively strong
measure of poverty.
Why is it that America, proud, strong, and, under the current
administration, arrogant, still has poor people amongst its
population? The reasons are actually quite simple. For almost
twenty years, both the Administration and Congress have been
enthralled with trickle-down economics. This economic model
is fundamentally false. As Ernest Partridge has recently written,
the trickle-down economic model is false. However attractive
it is, in theory, it still hasn't worked. It is a failure.
The reason for its failure is obvious. The model favors the
wealthy. It depends upon the wealthy to invigorate the economy,
which is wholly silly. The self-interested rich don't care
about the poor.
Government policy is all that there is between the poor and
penury. There has been a considerable effort on the part of
the right-wing to blame the poor for their circumstances,
and that has been made policy in government, particularly
with institution of the welfare reform act of 1996.
A bit over forty years ago, John F. Kennedy, as president,
commissioned Michael Harrington to undertake a study of the
poor. Shortly after Kennedy's assassination, Michael Harrington's
study was codified in a book Harrington wrote, entitled "Poverty
in America." It was a scathing indictment of America and American
policies regarding the poor. Harrington, then, was saying
the same things about poverty that the best of our people
are saying about poverty now. The upshot of that is that poverty
is still with us, and that, after about forty years, the solution
to the problem of poverty is no closer than it was then.
About sixty years ago, Paul Goodman, radical, poet and social
theoretician, suggested that most of the social ills of society
could be corrected by the understanding that some small portion
of society could take care of society's difficult tasks, the
unpleasant tasks, by a program which allowed those ill-fitted
to advancing in society to work for a year in the bad jobs
we relegate to the poor and the disenfranchised in exchange
for six years afterwards of a minimal existence guaranteeing
food, shelter and health care.
This proposal was dismissed by almost everyone. It depended
upon a crazy notion--that most of the money generated by the
economy went back to the people. Paul Goodman would have found
the trickle-down theory of economics to be completely and
The point is that poverty is endemic in this country, and
no one has ultimately solved the problem. The latest from
the Bush administration as a solution is to give money to
right-wing Christian organizations in support of faith-based
charities, more than in support of the poor. That is the extent,
after two centuries of recognition of the problem, of government's
approach to poverty in America. That effort has more to do
with defunding government programs, a backhanded form of privatization,
than correcting the difficulties of the poor.
More than any other factor, however, in addressing the difficulties
of the poor, is the persistent notion of the far right that
poverty is reflective of character flaw, or, worse, that the
technical status of poverty enabled the unscrupulous to take
advantage of the government system--the "welfare nigger driving
a Cadillac" routine.
Here's the truth: the poor in the United States are white,
black, Hispanic, Asian. They are, more frequently than not,
full-time workers. They don't drive Cadillacs. They're lucky
to be driving `76 Dodge Aspens and, frequently, that Dodge
is both their transportation and their home.
Here's the more horrible truth. If every displaced poor person
had a domicile, had a fixed address (in order to be able to
vote), and could be convinced to vote for a Democrat, and
every Democrat in Congress understood the value of permanently
fixing the problem of poverty, the Democrats would gain close
to 20 million votes in every election. Democrats would win
every election, every time. Republicans would be wondering
what hit `em, would be engaged in one giant circle-jerk with
Richard Perle and George W. Bush holding their own little
dicks and with no one to play with them.
For Democrats to accomplish that, though, they have to, first,
do the right thing. They have to give up the corporate money
which forces them to create legislation for the benefit of
the rich and powerful. They have to go out to the poor and
promise them a marginally acceptable existence and then make
legislation to enable that. They then have to provide the
legislation to offer the poor the means to lift themselves
up out of poverty. And, they have to listen to that Republican
from 140 years ago--Abraham Lincoln--who said that labor precedes
capital, that capital is not created with the efforts of labor.
As long as Democrats kiss the asses of George W. Bush and
John Ashcroft, and Donald Rumsfeld and all their corporate
friends, they'll be the shadow of right-wing Republicans.
And they, and we, can look forward to more poverty, more war,
more wealth for the wealthy. Government, good government,
can change all those things. America need not be run by a
It is within our power to demand repair of the country's
policies, with regard to our treatment of the poor, particularly
with regard to the money we spend to enrich the rich, through
the defense budget to enrich defense corporations, through
securities and exchange laws, and through the tax system.
It's about voting, and about votes. Democrats have not done
well for the poor, or for the rest of us. It's time they reformed
themselves. If they do the right thing, adopt the right policies,
they will not need money from rich contributors to be re-elected.
They will have the trust of and the votes from the people.
The first way they can convince the rest of us that they are
honest and forthright is to enable legislation to respect
the humanity and the dignity of the poor.
Hillary "it takes a village" Clinton can be the first to
do the right thing. She voted for the bankruptcy reform law
that will ruin the poor in this country and will put more
dollars in the pockets of mega-banks who extended too much
credit to people who could not keep up without getting into
serious debt, in large part because they have been underpaid
for decades. She can lead by repudiating her vote against
the poor, and by initiating credit reform, and by exhorting
her fellow Democrats to do the right thing, and by acknowledging
that there are too many impoverished villages here in the
Punpirate is a writer from New Mexico, once poor, who