Monday, October 25, 2010

On Poverty

Poverty is like punishment for a crime you didn't commit.  
—Eli Khamarov, Lives of the Cognoscenti
 

The prevalent fear of poverty among the educated classes is the worst moral disease from which our civilization suffers.  
—William James, American psychologist and philosopher

It would be nice if the poor were to get even half of the money that is spent in studying them.  
—Bill Vaughan, American journalist

Human Dignity Has No Barriers: A homeless man in Italy, circa. 1990.
Photo Credit: Sheldon Levy

 
Poverty is back on the agenda, but it's not good news for the poor. Leading the way, as it usually does in these matters, is the United States. Still reeling from the effects of the Great Recession, and looking for the reasons why the nation's fortunes are waning—and in all the wrong places—it has become fashionable once again to obliquely blame poverty on the victim. This declaration of truth is reported in no less an authority than the New York Times in a recent article by Patricia Cohen: Culture of Poverty Makes Comeback:
Now, after decades of silence, these scholars are speaking openly about you-know-what, conceding that culture and persistent poverty are enmeshed.
     “We’ve finally reached the stage where people aren’t afraid of being politically incorrect,” said Douglas S. Massey, a sociologist at Princeton who has argued that Moynihan was unfairly maligned.
      The old debate has shaped the new. Last month Princeton and the Brookings Institution released a collection of papers on unmarried parents, a subject, it noted, that became off-limits after the Moynihan report. At the recent annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, attendees discussed the resurgence of scholarship on culture. And in Washington last spring, social scientists participated in a Congressional briefing on culture and poverty linked to a special issue of The Annals, the journal of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.
      “Culture is back on the poverty research agenda,” the introduction declares, acknowledging that it should never have been removed.
I am sure that these social scientists feel relieved to get the record straight, after so many years of academic repression. Now, they feel the freedom to point their well-manicured figures at the cause of all our social ills. I sense much of this rhetoric emanates from thinking as follows: "It's good that we have cleared the air, and could now return to the good old days, where poor people, a great many of them urban blacks, can be put in their proper place." The article explains why it took so long to return to the good old days:
The reticence was a legacy of the ugly battles that erupted after Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant labor secretary in the Johnson administration, introduced the idea of a “culture of poverty” to the public in a startling 1965 report
Although Moynihan didn’t coin the phrase (that distinction belongs to the anthropologist Oscar Lewis), his description of the urban black family as caught in an inescapable “tangle of pathology” of unmarried mothers and welfare dependency was seen as attributing self-perpetuating moral deficiencies to black people, as if blaming them for their own misfortune.
The academics, think-tanks and policy-makers now have a reason for the failure of its social programs. The poor are to blame. Such political and academic thinkers might not outwardly equate poverty with moral deficiency, as was fashionable in the 1960s, but saying poverty is culturally shaped by perceptions does little to eradicate or reduce poverty. It is still a value judgment of a different order, which I expect said academics will protest as being unfair.

Make Room for Progress: The location is on Malcolm X Blvd between 124th and 125th St. The buildings were razed in 2006, shortly after the photo was taken, to make room for new commercial development. They appeared derelict because the tenants were removed. The area is actually the wealthiest area of Harlem; typical row houses nearby sell for $1-2M.
Photo Credit: Brendel Signature, 2006. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:BrendelSignature.

Here are the unvarnished facts: 44 million Americans are living in poverty. That's one in seven people. That's millions of families. In the U.S., poverty is defined as a family of four living on less than $22,000 a year. That's $1,833 a month for a family of four. And, yet, in the midst of such sobering facts, where the number of those living in poverty is at a 15-year high, the rich are complaining about high taxes Astounding: yes. Absurd: yes. Entitled: sadly so. The entitled have a high sense of, well, entitlement.

Against this tableau, these wonderfully paid academics, sitting comfortably in their well-appointed offices, are making pronouncements on the poor, blinded by their self-righteousness. They are also blinded by their fear, namely, that society-at-large has been unable to turn around the fortunes of many, particularly poor black families. All the studies, academic papers, reports will amount to nothing unless you actually show some real concern for the poor. A return to the stale academic theories of the past, however repackaged, shows a decided lack of imagination.

As George Bernard Shaw said: "Lack of money is the root of all evil." This might be a startling admission to accept for many, and I am of course naive to believe that this simple statement might be true. I take my naivete as a badge of honour, as a sign that I am humanitarian that cares passionately about the values of justice, equality and fairness.

Of course the poor are cynical. Cynicism comes from years of discouragement and despair. And why heap more punishment on people on the bottom of the social order: the poor? Isn't it bad enough that they suffer the ignominy of poverty? For some, however, the answer is a heartless no.

I agree with academic studies as a good principle, but in this case, the academics are speaking primarily to the politicians and policy-makers, and of course the elites, rather than  to the ordinary people. Their energies would be best looking at the harder facts on the ground. But that would involve getting out of their comfortable surroundings of office and conference room and hitting the streets. I don't see that taking place soon.

Even so, I am naively optimistic.

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Announcement of October 20, 2010

Dear Readers:

I have decided to reduce the number of blogs/essays that I post weekly—from five to three each week. The articles will appear on Monday, Wednesday and Friday each week starting this week. Thus, the next article will appear on Friday Oct 22nd. It will be on Harold Pinter, Nobel laureate and playwright.
          I will continue to post musical blogs periodically as I have been doing the past two months. These changes are necessary so as to maintain the highly consistent standards that you have come to expect from this blog. I enjoy writing these essays, particularly since they bring up and discuss important issues that affect us all.
       I hope and trust that you keep reading this blog. And, if you have any time or thoughts to share, please drop me a short note.

Sincerely,
PJG

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