A wise man once said, “as long as there is plenty, poverty is evil.” Then they shot him.
Poverty is the worst thing there is in the world. It’s worse than racism and sexism. Worse than hatred and war even. Hatred can’t keep a man from being warm, and all wars end eventually. But not poverty, not the kind of poverty we got in America. Here poverty’s an institution, part of the system, the way things are supposed to be.
Only a liar or an ignoramus notices that today’s the 50th anniversary of America’s War on Poverty and asks why the country hasn’t been able to claim victory yet. That’s like wondering why we still have troops in Afghanistan, as though this whole time the plan was to be in and out of the Middle East.
In a nation founded on slave labor, where it took nearly 100 years to recognize that a man is a man, and another 100 years to recognize him as an equal (legally), it seems only natural that the United States would racialize the poor — or has society impoverished certain races? It seems like a little bit of both.
Talking about how class and race are tied at the hip these days is so played out. Explaining how “people of color” and “the poor” are nearly synonymous terms is enough to make a guy yawn his face off. But while most people with a liberal arts education are able to describe how institutionalized racism has made it so that black and brown people disproportionately lack the tools and opportunities needed to escape the lower classes, it’s important for everyone in the lower classes — even the most racist, backwater, good ol’ boy — to understand what’s going on.
There is no War on Poverty. Maybe there was one for a few weeks back in the ’60s, but there ain’t one now. All there is today is a war on the poor.
That means every poor person. (Even you, Cletus.)
The poor shouldn’t take this decades-long assault personally. As with poverty itself, the War on the Poor is part of the American fabric. It always has been in a way, even if the greed driving it only became popular in the 1980s. (I hear they’re putting Gordon Gekko on the twenty.)
There’s always been a group of people who think the government does too much to help (other) people, that it does too much to protect people from their own laziness and lack of ambition. We’ve all heard them say how government needs to get out of the way and let individuals be the masters of their own destinies. If people are poor, they argue, it’s because they haven’t tried hard enough to make something of themselves.
For their sakes, I’ll assume these people mistakenly think each of us begins the race of life at more or less the same starting line. And even if we don’t all start at the same line, they might argue, the advantages someone is born with are due to the hard work of their ancestors.
The reason I single out the pro-poverty people is because now that institutionalized racism is beginning to get torn down, erecting a system of poverty is the new game in town. And while most of the people who don’t give a damn about the poor aren’t racists themselves, their campaign to make sure the rich are protected and the poor aren’t helped is supported by racists who want to see people of color remain the poorer races.
That some people want black and Latinos to have very little isn’t saying anything new either. Lincoln said as much to a crowd in Ohio back before he became the Great Emancipator.
We might not be post-racial just yet, but we sure as hell aren’t post-classist. Far from it.
Fifty years after America vowed to defeat poverty, there are now two races in America. They go by several names: the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots, the 1 percent and the 99 percent. And thanks to evergrowing disparity between the two, you can easily tell them apart. One says things like “the Recession ended two years ago,” while the other’s still saying, “we’re in a recession.” One barely felt a recession, while the other is still struggling through a full-fledged depression in which healthy foods are a luxury and so is a decent education. It’s easy to see why some people say the economic stimulus was overkill and others are asking for more.
So can we win the War on Poverty and finally end the War on the Poor? It depends.
America first needs to become more collective and less individualistic, more “all for one” and less “you’re on your own.” Americans must come to understand that the higher taxes they pay don’t go toward handouts, but toward helping a single mother pay the rent and put food on the kitchen table, or giving some poor black kid on the South Side or some poor white kid in rural Arkansas a fair shot at a better life. The nation needs to be more like Brazil, where the government faces a sagging economy but is still focused on officially eliminating poverty in 2014 — because government is supposed to have the people’s back, or so the story goes.
Call me a star-spangled idiot, but I still have faith in this great nation of ours — great in its faults, but great in its potential. America’s the only country with white founders that went from selling the sons of Africans to making one leader of the free world.
There’s nothing a nation like ours can’t do when the will of the people and the will of the government are one. When government acts against the will of the people or not in their best interests, it’s up to the people to do what they do far to infrequently: get angry.
The American people must be willing to make the right changes, to be a better country, and the government must become our government again.
Until then, the War on the Poor rages on.