April 11, 2017

Poverty pays if you aren't poor

“Poverty pays unless you’re poor.”

So said Don West, a rebellious Appalachian poet and educator and friend of mine who devoted his life to the struggle against it.

The evidence suggests he’s right.

Way back in 1971, sociologist Herbert Gans enumerated the different ways poverty benefits the non-poor in an essay titled “The Uses of Poverty: the Poor Pay All.” His findings hold up pretty well.

Then as now, it turns out that those who benefit the most from it are the wealthy.

Among the functions of poverty are these:

*Poverty ensures that the “dirty work” of society gets done in the form of the many jobs that are low-pay low-trust and low-status but are absolutely necessary for a society to work.

A pool unemployed and underemployed people also imposes “discipline” in the labor market and helps drive down wages for all workers. A bad job looks pretty good when you step over homeless people or drive past people holding “Will work for food” signs on your way to work. When hundreds apply for a handful of living wage jobs, it sends a strong message to the lucky few that they can be easily replaced.

This population can also be mobilized by the powerful and wealthy as strike-breakers or cannon fodder in war time or even as angry mobs that can be used to target other vulnerable populations.

*Because the poor work at low wages, they can perform the tasks (cleaning, child care, etc.) that make the leisure of the affluent possible. They also pay a higher proportion of their income in sales and consumption taxes, something likely to get worse if some in the Legislature get their way.

*Poverty creates a lot of jobs and economic opportunities for people, businesses and organizations which “service” the poor, from pawn shops to plasma centers to professionals to prisons.

*Poor people can be counted on to buy or otherwise consume the goods that others don’t want, whether it’s old food, second hand goods, or used cars. In a twist Gans couldn’t have imagined, huge corporations now get major breaks for dumping unwanted and often unhealthy food products to pantries and charities.

*Poor people are an ideal group to punish in order to uphold social norms. As Gans put it,
“To justify the desirability of hard work, thrift, honest, and monogamy, for example, the defenders of these norms must be able to find people who can be accused of being lazy, spendthrift, dishonest, and promiscuous. Although there is some evidence that the poor are about as moral and law-abiding as anyone else, they are more likely to be caught and punished when they participate in deviant acts.”

They are also less able to defend themselves against stereotypes and legal punishments.

*Speaking of deviance and social norms, the non-poor can derive a vicarious thrill from contemplating the real or imagined moral laxity of the poor.

*The affluent also have a long history of what I call cultural strip-mining, which consists of finding, commodifying, and profiting from the cultural creations of the non-wealthy. Think blues music, mountain ballads, folk art, etc. To paraphrase the Clash, the spice of poverty adds life where there isn’t any.

*A poor population helps boost the status and self-esteem of those who aren’t poor. It also gives the aristocracy a chance to display its generosity on the “worthy poor,” which presumably helps justify its existence.

*Because of their relative powerlessness, Gans noted that poor people can absorb the costs of change. If you need to wipe out a neighborhood for a new highway or development project, close down a school or locate a toxic dump, poor communities are a ready target.

There are also a lot of ways the affluent can use the poor for political purposes, some of which Gans couldn’t have anticipated.

He noted that “An economy based on the ideology of laissez-faire requires a deprived population that is allegedly unwilling to work or that can be considered inferior because it must accept charity or welfare in order to survive.”

An “unworthy” population is a powerful argument against working for a more just social order, since presumably such people would benefit the most from such an arrangement.

Politicians such as Ronald Reagan and many others elevated this process to an art by stirring racially-charged resentments against mythical “welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks” buying steaks with food stamps. Wealthy people and corporations are still reaping the benefits of that strategy.
Tapping such resentment served to further enrich the already wealthy and contribute to a level of inequality unprecedented in recent history.

Finally, and this is just me talking, it seems like some people in positions of power and influence derive some kind of gratification by proposing and imposing laws and policies that impose humiliation, surveillance and degradation on poor people. The pleasure seems to be enhanced when masked as compassion. To me it’s the political equivalent of bullying or cruelty to animals.

Considering all the benefits the poor convey to the wealthy, there doesn’t seem to be much gratitude. But I guess that would defeat the purpose.

I’m reminded of some lines by the English poet William Blake:

“Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody Poor;
And Mercy no more could be
If all were as happy as we.”

1 comment:

Antipode said...

"The poor man retains the prejudices of his forefathers without their faith, and their ignorance without their virtues; he has adopted the doctrine of self-interest as the rule of his actions, without understanding the science which puts it to use; and his selfishness is no less blind than was formerly his devotedness to others. If society is tranquil, it is not because it is conscious of its strength and its well-being, but because it fears its weakness and its infirmities; a single effort may cost it its life. Everybody feels the evil, but no one has courage or energy enough to seek the cure. The desires, the repinings, the sorrows, and the joys of the present time lead to no visible or permanent result, like the passions of old men, which terminate in impotence." Alexis_de_Tocqueville