The Culture of Poverty: There but for the grace of their greater virtue and superior work ethic.

There but for the grace of their greater virtue and superior work ethic

by digby

I've been thinking a lot about the fact that the rightwing had to make up the trope that Democrats were trying to force the government to pay for birth control when it was actually a regulation that insurance companies pay for it as a normal part of the preventive care package. I mused the other day that it had to do with the absolute belief by conservatives that the government really only exists to take their hard earned money and give it to the undeserving. And in many cases, these undeserving happened to be wanton women who were unable to contain their primitive urges and thus lived lives of slatternly abandon. This attitude goes way back, of course, and was especially prevalent during the Victorian era.

Today, Mother Jones has published a fascinating article by Barbara Ehrenreich (originally on TomDispatch)in which she discusses the more modern iteration of the "blame the poor" (women), which actually came out of the liberal tradition. She discusses both Michael Harrington's seminal book of the 1960s, The Other America and The Moynihan Report, both of which had the effect of pathologizing the poor. It was called "The Culture Of Poverty" which I'm sure most of you remember.

The left, as well as the right,bought into this theory, which basically said that poverty was caused by a cultural divide, in which the good hard working Real Americans were on one side and the lazy, intemperate Others just didn't know how to behave. It wasn't their fault, but Real Americans needed to do something to break the "cycle of poverty."

Since this fit rather nicely with certain conservative beliefs about race the Republicans took it to a whole other level, followed closely by the New Democrats:

By the Reagan era, the "culture of poverty" had become a cornerstone of conservative ideology: poverty was caused, not by low wages or a lack of jobs, but by bad attitudes and faulty lifestyles. The poor were dissolute, promiscuous, prone to addiction and crime, unable to "defer gratification," or possibly even set an alarm clock. The last thing they could be trusted with was money. In fact, Charles Murray argued in his 1984 book Losing Ground, any attempt to help the poor with their material circumstances would only have the unexpected consequence of deepening their depravity.

So it was in a spirit of righteousness and even compassion that Democrats and Republicans joined together to reconfigure social programs to cure, not poverty, but the "culture of poverty." In 1996, the Clinton administration enacted the "One Strike" rule banning anyone who committed a felony from public housing. A few months later, welfare was replaced by Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), which in its current form makes cash assistance available only to those who have jobs or are able to participate in government-imposed "workfare."

In a further nod to "culture of poverty" theory, the original welfare reform bill appropriated $250 million over five years for "chastity training" for poor single mothers. (This bill, it should be pointed out, was signed by Bill Clinton.)

Yep. "Chastity training." Signed by Bill Clinton. I'll just leave you to think about that for a minute.

She goes on to detail just how pervasive this idea still is, particularly on the right where they routinely make the charge that the jobless are spoiled and lazy dependents who need a good kick in the pants (along with a drug test) despite the fact that we have had the longest stretch of high unemployement since the Great Depression. Many Americans agree --- after all it reinforces the fact that they are superior people, more moral and upright and therefore more deserving.

What would Michael Harrington make of the current uses of the "culture of poverty" theory he did so much to popularize? I worked with him in the 1980s, when we were co-chairs of Democratic Socialists of America, and I suspect he'd have the decency to be chagrined, if not mortified. In all the discussions and debates I had with him, he never said a disparaging word about the down-and-out or, for that matter, uttered the phrase "the culture of poverty." Maurice Isserman, Harrington's biographer, told me that he'd probably latched onto it in the first place only because "he didn't want to come off in the book sounding like a stereotypical Marxist agitator stuck-in-the-thirties."

The ruse—if you could call it that—worked. Michael Harrington wasn't red-baited into obscurity. In fact, his book became a bestseller and an inspiration for President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. But he had fatally botched the "discovery" of poverty. What affluent Americans found in his book, and in all the crude conservative diatribes that followed it, was not the poor, but a flattering new way to think about themselves—disciplined, law-abiding, sober, and focused. In other words, not poor.

It was a pretty lethal "botch," and typical of the effect of liberals always trying desperately to escape the toxic labels the right has inflicted on them. It managed to reinforce a a bunch of enduring American stereotypes, mostly along racial and gender lines, that fed into some rather ugly impulses.

She doesn't go into it, but I think this latest front in the culture war around birth control has provided a small opening to talk about this. The right had to lie through their teeth to activate the wanton woman, "undeserving poor" piece of the reactionary lizard brain. They are reaching well into the middle class and it's seriously dissonant --- Rush's advertisers running is a good sign that it's a problem for them. We'll have to see how that plays out.

Ehrenreich says that it's time to take another look at this problem:

And if we look closely enough, we'll have to conclude that poverty is not, after all, a cultural aberration or a character flaw. Poverty is a shortage of money.

Indeed. And that would mean that all the conservative Real Americans (and all the well-off liberals) would finally have to admit that they aren't doing better by virtue of their greater virtue. That would be revolutionary.