Janine Jackson: In November of 2011, a New York Times headline read, “New Way to Tally Poor Recasts View of Poverty.” The news was about a new Census Bureau measure that showed poverty higher here but lower there than other measures. And the debate was around whether the numbers were evidence of the success of assistance programs. It wasn’t a new conversation then. And, as ever, there were some pointing out that poverty data are never adequate to reflect a person or a family’s burden, or health, or prospects.
And there was something else: Occupy Wall Street was doing what media don’t: connecting poverty to wealth, the 99 percent to the 1 percent, as well as connecting information to action.
CounterSpin spoke at the time with movement historian Professor Frances Fox Piven of the City University of New York.
When Cornel West and Tavis Smiley toured the country talking about poverty recently, they ran into a CNN host named Carol Costello who confronted them with the idea that “the poor actually have it better than the middle class.” And she cited the Heritage Foundation, and said that poor people “have microwave ovens and they even have a refrigerator. What are they complaining about?”
Well, that was a very vivid example. She went on to then say that people think the poor are “leeches on society” who are “just, you know, sucking everything out of us.”
But a few months later, one could be forgiven for getting essentially the same message from the New York Times headline, “Bleak Portrait of Poverty Is Off the Mark, Experts Say,” over an article about the recalibration of the poverty rate that also cites Robert Rector from Heritage, saying people’s idea of poverty is much worse than the reality, because many poor people have Xboxes. What do you make of this push to redefine poverty, or to fiddle with the numbers? Is it really changing how many people are poor, and the scale of the problem?
Frances Fox Piven: It certainly does not, and it is fiddling with the numbers, as you say. You can maybe get it down a point or two by saying, “Well, we don’t now include food stamps in the income we count,” and that’s true. On the other hand, they don’t count most of the expenses that people, including poor people, have that have been going up at a much faster rate than the cost of the basic market basket of food.
Now, the poverty rate is determined by that basic market basket of food—at least, that’s the way we do it in the United States. Much can be criticized about that, including the fact that it doesn’t take account of rising transportation costs, of rising healthcare costs, of the costs that a lot of families have to pay for daycare, so it’s an unreal number for that reason.
But it can also be criticized because poverty is not just a measure of how much cabbage and potatoes you need to live on. Poverty lines in other countries are determined by how distant this portion of the population is from the median income. Now, there’s a meaning in that different measure; what that’s saying is that there should be a measure that somehow takes account of marginalization, of exclusion from the kind of life most people live.
However, I really do think that all of this jabbering about poverty measures, up a decimal point or down a decimal point, is beside the point. Everybody has to agree that poverty is increasing, whatever reasonable measure you use, in the United States.
And the right-wing line about that fact, which is so awesome and awful, is that the poor have only themselves to blame. Not that we should jiggle with whether we count food stamps or don’t count food stamps—the main message is that the poor are poor because they have bad character. The poor are poor because they are virtually a criminal class. Which is why we have welfare departments now that require that any applicant get fingerprinted, or get tested for drugs, something that is so humiliating that many people won’t even apply, no matter how grave their need is.
But, you know, for at least 35 years in this country, we have been exposed to politicians’ arguments that say the worst thing you can do about poverty is to help the poor, because it only worsens the character problems that are at root in accounting for their poverty.
JJ: In a recent essay published in The Nation and elsewhere, you wrote:
The Occupy Wall Street movement has already made the concentration of wealth at the top of this society a central issue in American politics. Now it promises to do something similar when it comes to the realities of poverty in this country.
Which underscored for me that these aren’t the same phenomena, but is it possible to engage inequality and not talk about poverty?
FFP: It certainly is. Most of the time, there’s some acknowledgement of the fact that the very affluent, the biggest corporations, are chiseling on their taxes, for example, and that that isn’t good for the group—whoever is meant by this—the “middle class.”
We talk endlessly about the middle class, and how we have to improve the circumstances of the middle class. Now, that seems to me to be a very evasive kind of formulation, because, for one thing, most working people, are they middle class? Well, most of them are scampering to stay above, to keep up with their mortgage, and to have enough food on the table, and they’re working too many hours—is that middle class? I don’t know.
But by saying “middle class” and “middle class” and “middle class,” we are almost explicitly excluding people who are really badly off, and I don’t think we should do that. I don’t think that’s a democratic thing to do, I don’t think it’s a moral stance to take, and I think that Occupy Wall Street, when it says, “We are the 99 Percent,” and when it welcomes the homeless into their encampments, and when it shares its food with poor people, is saying that too. It’s saying, it’s all of us—except the 1 Percent. And I think that’s a big step forward in political discussion in the United States.