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Poverty - 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 absolutely absurd.

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 parsimonious minority.

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 U.S.

Punpirate is a writer from New Mexico, once poor, who remembers.

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