Richer Thinking (and Praying) About Poverty

Americans think poorly about the poor. The corollary to the American dream of economic and social advancement by hard work has been the false assumption that the poor have only themselves to blame. In his seminal book, “The Undeserving Poor”, the author, Michael Katz, explains why Americans have tended not to understand poverty as the product of systematic forces of political economy. The labor movement in the US was co-opted by the capitalist elite into denying the existence of social and economic classes. Religion played a perverse part, as well. Reformed Protestantism portrayed poverty as a natural consequence of personal moral failure rather than the social structural failure that it really represents. Current evangelical “prosperity gospel” preaching feeds this distorted blame game, as does the “new thought/new age” idea that you create reality entirely with your own positive or negative thoughts. In Britain there are the “posh” and the working classes, but in America, our categories for lower income people have been an ever-changing mumbo-jumbo: “hobos”, “bums”, “tramps”, “vagrants”, and more recently “the homeless” and the “the underclass”. We don’t know where to put people of inadequate means in our minds and hearts, except away from the rest of us. We have “othered” them into strangers, using terms that create social distance so that we can avoid collective moral responsibility for attending to everyone’s needs.

We’re back at it again. The Republicans are now putting work requirements on public social and health insurance recipients. These rules are a thinly-veiled attempt to deny benefits to poor people. The Republicans want to shrink Medicaid and EBT Food Stamp budgets in order to offset the huge tax cuts they just lavished on the rich. But work requirements are a waste of money. The cost of hiring bureaucrats to manage the new regulations would be better spent on increased, not decreased, social insurance to help very low income people. The Republican push for work requirements is disgusting hypocrisy. The supposedly anti-bureaucracy party is creating a bureaucratic thicket to block the people who most need help from getting it. The same repugnant tactic was used to wipe out Aid to Families with Dependent Children back in the 1990’s. The resulting Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program put up many hurdles to participation. This resulted in a huge drop in the number of recipients, which was touted as a sign of success. The government declared victory by retreating. It left behind millions of struggling families who could not negotiate the complex and onerous requirements.

Today, as always, the strategy of the Republicans has been to pit working-class people against each other. The push for work requirements is a rhetorical ploy suggesting that “welfare” recipients are lazy. Thus the Republicans can demonize and ultimately dismantle the public social and health insurance systems that they fought against when they were proposed in the first place, decades ago.

But if we think – and pray – better about poverty, we can begin to act better about it, too.

It begins with reclaiming dignity.

In Mary’s Magnificat, her song of praise to God at her discovery of her pregnancy with Jesus, she magnifies the Lord, “who looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant”. Mary’s song is that of a low-status, low-income person who has discovered her self-worth. She’s found her voice. She’s un-othered herself, and proclaimed that she’s as fully a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven as anyone else.

We can follow Mary’s example by linguistically un-othering people with low incomes. Regardless of our bank balances – if we have bank accounts at all – we’re all in this together. Here in the Kin-dom of God, we all belong to the same human family, and among us, money is no marker of moral distinction. To make this manifest, we must use terminology that avoids stigmatizing people who are physically or mentally disabled, or people who have been otherwise left behind by the market economy. We should begin our national conversation about poverty with the assumption that generally people will be industrious if given half a chance. I happen to have quite a bit of experience with folks on the extreme ends of the economic spectrum in America, and I can attest that in terms of percentages, if not in raw numbers, there are as least as many lazy rich people as their are lazy poor people. We should not structure our social system on the basis of imagined moral differences between economic classes.

We need to avoid framing our discourse about poverty in the terms that Republicans use to divide voters and demonize the public sector. We should abandon the terms “welfare” and “entitlements” because they’ve been effectively stigmatized. Instead we should be very careful to refer to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, EBT Food Stamps, TANF, Section 8 housing vouchers, etc, as social or health “insurance”. That is a term with positive connotations: responsible people make sure they have it. Some forms of insurance are appropriately secured in the market, but others can be effectively accessed only through the public sector, paid for through our taxes. Insurance against the catastrophic loss or absence of income is in this category. Likewise, to insure all Americans for health care requires the substantial intervention of the government. These are practical realities, not ideological positions.

A path to richer thinking about poverty can be found in the effective altruism movement. The essence of this movement is explained in Doing Good Better, a book by William MacAskill. It’s about using reason and evidence to explore the best way for individuals (and societies) to be truly useful to people in need. Often, the application of this ethical calculus leads to surprising, expectation-busting conclusions. Applying this approach to our social safety net would create a fresh conversation about poverty in this country, liberating it from political dogma.

Our public social and health insurance systems need improvement, not destruction. We should reform them to be more effective, substantial, humane, and efficient at eliminating the suffering that comes with poverty and illness. Today, the economy is racing toward a Brave New World in which artificial intelligence will wipe out many more jobs than it will create. So it is urgent that we revisit an idea proposed by Tom Paine, who roused America to revolution with his 1775 pamphlet, “Common Sense”. He declared that every citizen should receive a basic guaranteed income from the government, in order to wipe out poverty and create the conditions for lively free enterprise and real democracy. Such a guaranteed income would be dignified, because everybody would get it, and it would be taxed like regular income. It could replace many less effective “safety net” programs currently provided by the government. In the 1960’s, there was a short period when Republicans supported the basic idea, and the helpful but inadequate Earned Income Tax Credit was the result. To deal with the looming crisis of poverty today, let’s go back to the future dreamed up by one of our Founding Fathers.

We’ll get nowhere if we start with the noxious assumptions of Trump and the Republicans in Congress and in statehouses. Let’s start with the assumptions implicit in the Christian faith, and mirrored in other religions as well: we’ve all fallen short of the glory of God, regardless of our incomes. And regardless of our wealth or lack thereof, we’re all the crowns of creation. Let’s take poverty seriously, and not let cynical politicians connive to distract us away from it. We’ll neither make nor keep America great unless we do what is actually effective in relieving the plight of the people who live on the meager margins of our economy.

About the Author

Rev. Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life, USC
Website: MINDFULCHRISTIANITY.ORG Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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