As if killing the Child Tax Credit, blocking voting rights, gutting key climate legislation, and refusing living wages wasn’t enough, West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin is now promoting legislation that further punishes the poor and marginalized. Along with Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, he’s introduced the PIPES Act, which undercuts key harm-reduction funding from the Department of Health and Human Services. It arrives with a media campaign launched by Fox News and other conservative outlets pushing bogus claims that the Biden administration is using government funds to buy “crack pipes,” tapping into a decades-long campaign to scapegoat vulnerable populations rather than address the root causes of the unconscionable conditions under which they live.
Paired with Manchin’s moralizing and obstruction when it comes to President Biden’s Build Back Better Bill because he “cannot accept our economy, or basically our society, moving towards an entitlement mentality,” his new legislation is more evidence that he privileges rich donors over actual constituents in West Virginia and is truly willing to punish the poor. He’s claimed that families in his state would use money from the Child Tax Credit to buy drugs, that work requirements rather than more resources will lift poor kids out of poverty, and that, as the Huffington Post reported, “Americans would fraudulently use the proposed paid sick leave policy, specifically saying people would feign being sick and go on hunting trips.”
All of this represents a painful return to the “culture of poverty” debates of the 1960s. Indeed, despite being discredited by scholars and poverty experts over and over since its invention, such anti-poor propaganda seems to rear its head whenever popular opinion and public action might actually lead to improvements in the lives of poor and low-income people.
The Culture of Poverty
American anthropologist Oscar Lewis first suggested there was a culture of poverty in the mid-1960s, an idea quickly championed by the political right. Republican administrations from President Ronald Reagan on, buttressed by right-wing groups like the Moral Majority, claimed that the true origins of poverty lay in immoral personal choices and ways of life that led to broken families and terrible life decisions.
Such ideas were particularly appealing to politicians and the wealthy since they identified the causes of poverty not as a problem of society at large, but of the poor themselves. It was, as they saw it, one that lay deep in an “autonomous subculture [that] exists among the poor, one that is self-perpetuating and self-defeating.” To encourage such thinking, they invented and endlessly publicized hyper-racialized caricatures of the poor like the “welfare queen,” while pushing the idea that poor people were lazy, crazy, and stupid. Then they criminalized poverty, while cutting government programs like welfare and public housing — legislative acts guaranteed to harm millions of Americans across multiple generations.
This culture-of-poverty debate and the legislative action to uphold it have become deeply ingrained in this country and not just among conservatives. In 1996, after all, it was the administration of Democratic President Bill Clinton that ended “welfare as we know it,” its officials having armed themselves with tales about the backwardness of the poor and their need to finally take “personal responsibility” for their lives.
A neoliberal approach to governing has had a hold on significant parts of both parties ever since, while structural poverty and inequality have only deepened. The poor have been pathologized so effectively that culture-of-poverty distortions have even made their way into more progressive media and scholarly accounts of their lives. There, too, poor people are often depicted as incapable of analyzing their own situations or understanding the dilemmas they face, let alone engaging in the sort of strategic thinking that might begin to overcome inequality.
Even, for example, those heralded scholars of poor people’s movements, Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, argued that the history of organizing the poor did not originate among the poor themselves. Instead, they suggested that, in the twentieth century, such organizing efforts were “largely stimulated by the federal government through its Great Society programs” and through anti-poverty agencies, civil-rights activists, and student groups. What such a perspective cut out were the struggles of poor and low-income organizers like Johnnie Tillmon of Arkansas and Annie Smart of Louisiana, both poor mothers and important initiators of the welfare rights movement, as well as other twentieth-century campaigns led by the poor to lift the load of poverty.
Leaders like Tillmon and Smart, in fact, helped build organizations that, in the twentieth century, mobilized tens of thousands of the very people those in power and the media all too often blamed for society’s deepest problems. Slogans used decades later by the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, the National Welfare Rights Union, and the National Union of the Homeless, to mobilize the poor, like “no housing, no peace,” “you only get what you’re organized to take,” and “each one, teach one, so we can reach one more,” highlighted the latent but all-too-real power found within poor communities, as well as the idea that the poor are themselves capable of being agents of positive social change.
This last point is especially important because, historically speaking, poor people have struggled over and over again to create a better country not just for themselves, but for everyone. Far from being imprisoned in a culture of poverty and so helpless to act to change their own conditions, the poor throughout U.S. history have shown an ability, often under the worst imaginable conditions, to transform society for the better by fighting for everyone’s right to healthcare, housing, clean water, an adequate education, and so much more.
Nonetheless, victim-blaming narratives that divert attention from the social structures and interests that have created ever more poverty in this century continue to serve a political purpose for the defenders of the status quo. In today’s America, consider Joe Manchin, one among many necromancers who have reanimated the corpse of the long-discredited culture of poverty. In the process, they’ve given a veneer of sophistication to hateful rhetoric and acts against the poor, including the nearly half of West Virginians who are today in poverty or one emergency from economic ruin.
The Death-Dealing Culture of the Rich
In America, instead of recognizing the political agency and moral vision of poor people, it’s generally believed that the rich, entrepreneurial, and powerful have the solutions to our social ills. Indeed, as I’ve written previously at TomDispatch, this society has long suffered from a kind of Stockholm syndrome: we look to the rich for answers to the very problems they’re all-too-often responsible for creating and from which, of course, they benefit immeasurably.
Even as Americans begin to question the ever more enormous divide between the rich and the rest of us, the media narrative lionizes the wealthy. For example, contrast the many pieces celebrating the Gates Foundation’s work around global health with its decision early in the pandemic to pressure Oxford University and AstraZeneca to keep exclusive property rights to their Covid-19 vaccine rather than making it widely available for manufacture around the world. That decision and so many more like it by other wealthy individuals, private corporations, and countries played a significant part in creating the vaccine apartheid that continues to divide the Global North and South (and so prepared the groundwork for new variations of the pandemic among the unvaccinated).
Moreover, our society continues to treat the grievances of the rich as public crises requiring government action, but wounds to the rest of us as the unfortunate result of bad luck or personal failures. This dynamic has been seen during both the Trump and Biden presidencies. In the early weeks of lockdown in 2020, the Federal Reserve, under President Trump, funneled billions of dollars into the coffers of the wealthy. Meanwhile, significant parts of the CARES Act, like the Paycheck Protection Program, directed significant sums to high-income households, while millions were left in the lurch.
A year and half later, bad-faith arguments about inflation and scarcity have been used by Manchin and other “moderate” Democrats to sink the Build Back Better agenda and allow major antipoverty programs like the Child Tax Credit to expire, to the detriment of nearly 75% of its recipients. I say bad faith because you need only look at the $2.1 trillion that America’s billionaires have made during these two pandemic years or the $770 billion Congress had no hesitation allocating for the 2022 Pentagon budget and related expenses to see that such scarcity arguments simply don’t hold water. In reality, the resources are at hand to solve our nation’s most burning crises, if only we had the political will.
Those in power maintain their hold on our collective imagination in part due to the pervasive ideological belief that an economy which benefits the rich will, in a trickle-down fashion, benefit the rest of us. This belief is at the core of the curriculum of most university economics departments across the country. In fact, in America today, it’s largely accepted that a rising economic tide will lift all boats rather than just the yachts of the well-to-do, as many of the rest of us sink all around them.
When, however, nearly half of the U.S. population is already poor or lives one lost paycheck, storm, or medical emergency away from poverty, a national reckoning with the core values and political priorities of our society is an increasing necessity. How sad, then, that the poor continue to be pitted against each other, blamed for their poverty (and many of the country’s other problems), and fed the lie of scarcity in a time of unprecedented abundance.
Poverty Amid Plenty
According to the Supplemental Poverty Measure of the U.S. Census, there are 140 million people of different races, genders, and ages from all over this county who are poor or low-income. It’s not that those 140 million Americans all lack the cultural attributes for success or that most refuse to work or don’t understand how to spend or save money. And they certainly aren’t poor because they haven’t prayed hard enough or God simply ordained it. Rather, it’s time to hear some of the real reasons why people are poor or low-income rather than fall prey to the misrepresentations and falsifications of the culture of poverty.
One reason is because the cost of living in this country has, for decades, outpaced household earnings. As the Poor People’s Campaign (which I co-chair with Reverend William J. Barber II) pointed out in a 2018 report, American workers have seen little or no real growth in their weekly wages for the past 40 years, even as economic productivity has shot up exponentially. Tens of millions of Americans work for less than $15 an hour and so can’t afford basic necessities, including housing, childcare, health care, education, food, and gas — the prices of all of which have outpaced wage growth. Believe it or not, there is no state, metropolitan area, or county in the country today where a full-time, minimum-wage job can support a two-bedroom rental apartment.
One-hundred-and-forty-million people are impoverished, in part because racialized voter suppression and gerrymandering have created unfair elections that keep the poor — especially Black, Latinx, and Native American people — largely out of the democratic process. Between 2010 and 2020, more than 27 states passed racist voter suppression laws and, in 2021, 19 states passed an additional 33 of them. As a consequence, elections are rigged from the start and many extremist politicians, essentially smuggled into office, then govern by suppressing wages while cutting health care and critical social services for the poor of all walks of life. (This is something that leaders, especially Reverend William Barber and the Forward Together Moral Mondays Movement, have been pointing out for years.)
Such widespread deep poverty exists in this country because of ongoing and intensifying attacks on social programs, on full display in recent months. At a moment when ever more people need a strong social safety net, there have been dramatic cuts in federal housing assistance, the public-housing stock, food stamps, and other critical social programs. Today, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program supports less than one in four poor families with children, while federal assistance to local water systems has decreased by 74% over the past 40 years, leading to a crisis of water quality and affordability impacting at least 14 million mostly poor people. Add to this, in the midst of a pandemic, the reality that states are sending back monies set aside to help needy people, even as 3.7 million kids were pushed below the poverty line in January alone.
In addition, more and more Americans are struggling because we have become a debtor nation. With wages stagnating and the cost of living rising, there has been an explosion of debt across the country. And given the already described circumstances, you undoubtedly won’t be surprised to discover that the bottom 90% of Americans hold more than 70% of it, including $1.34 trillion in student debt. In 2016, 24 million American families were living “underwater” (meaning they owed more on their houses than those structures were even worth).
The reality of poverty amid plenty has also grown more widespread and evident because our national priorities have increasingly shifted ever more toward a militarized and toxic war economy. Today, out of every federal discretionary dollar, 53 cents go to our military, while only 15 cents go to anti-poverty programs. This sort of spending has been mirrored in our communities, too, where there has been a tenfold increase in spending on prisons and deportations over the past 40 years. In other words, the criminalization of the poor that began in earnest half a century ago is now in full bloom. To cite one indicative figure that sums this up: since 2000, 95% of the rise in the incarcerated population has been made up of people who can’t afford bail.
In 1967, the year before he was assassinated, while organizing the poor across the country for the Poor People’s Campaign, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., offered a powerful insight that couldn’t be more relevant today. “We are called upon,” he said,
“to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the iron ore?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?’ These are the words that must be said.”
Indeed, when it comes to who are the poor and why they are poor, it’s time to reject the hateful theories of old and instead answer questions like those.
Copyright 2022 Liz Theoharis
Liz Theoharis, a TomDispatch regular, is a theologian, ordained minister, and anti-poverty activist. Co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, she is the author of Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor and We Cry Justice: Reading the Bible with the Poor People’s Campaign. Follow her on Twitter at @liztheo.
This article first appeared on TomDispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project, author of The End of Victory Culture, as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. His latest book is A Nation Unmade By War (Haymarket Books).