A poor people’s campaign emerges, amidst cuts in assistance and a problematic employment picture: In context

The Context

For the past four decades, since at least when Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, right wing (ultra-conservative) forces in the country have grown stronger politically and economically. In previous posts, I’ve written about these right- wing forces. They include, most importantly, the corporate community led by the mega-corporations in all sectors of the economy and the massive political influence they have on the federal government and many state governments. They include Trump, his advisers, cabinet, and other decision-making positions in his administration. The highly partisan Republican Party is a crucial player. They all push for policies that are favorable to corporate interests and the wealthier strata in society. They are sometimes assisted by centrist segments of the Democratic Party. They have the support of billionaires, networks of the rich, their lobbyists, think tanks, and experts. And the right-wing power brokers can count on the support of tens of millions of Trump’s core supporters, that is, 35 to 39 percent of the adult population, according to recent polls.

The economic ideology of the right-wing is neoliberalism? This is an ideology that idealizes the corporate-dominated private sector of the economy, says that government is mostly inefficient and wasteful in what it does, and that the country will prosper most when taxes are low, especially for the corporations and the rich, when the economy is little regulated, when government functions are privatized (e.g., prisons, schools, student debt), and when government support and/or spending on social insurance and public assistance programs are reduced. The right-wing also supports large military budgets, a hawkish foreign policy, a celebratory patriotism, and the marginalization of scientific knowledge and evidence-based exchanges that challenge its economic interests (e.g., regarding climate change). To hold onto their populous voting constituencies, Trump and the Republican party support only weak and ineffective gun control regulation, anti-abortion restrictions, and anti-immigrant policies.

Attacks on the poor

In this post, I’ll focus on the attacks from the right, especially from Trump
and the Republican Party, on programs designed to assist the poor. Such attacks are justified, they insist, by claims that most poverty reflects the choices of the poor, a culture of poverty that transmits values that make a stable family life, educational achievement and employment unlikely. In some cases, these attacks claim some of the poor are in this situation because of genetic inferiority reflected in low intelligence. Historian Michael B. Katz describes how views of the undeserving poor come in two varieties in his book, The Undeserving Poor: America’s Enduring Confrontation with Poverty.

“The idea of poverty as a problem of persons comes in both hard and soft versions. The soft version portrays poverty as the result of laziness, immoral behavior, inadequate skills, and dysfunctional families. The hard version views poverty as the result of inherited deficiencies that limit intellectual potential, trigger harmful and immoral behavior, and circumscribe economic achievement” (p. 3).

The implication of the right-wing/conservative view is that many, if not the majority, of the people who are poor have only themselves to blame. Their impoverished circumstances are assumed to be of their own making. They are said to be lazy, want to avoid work, and want a free ride at the taxpayers’ expense. They claim that there are always jobs available somewhere in industry, in construction, in mines, in services, on farms, on ranches available for those who really want to work. There is also a rich historical literature on the “rags to riches” theme, or the idea that through hard work and ingenuity people can rise out of the most impoverished circumstances to become rich. This narrative on the undeserving/deserving poor fits well into a view of a political economy that generates vast inequalities.

In this context, those who have power often claim they have earned their status through hard work, superior intelligence, and making the right choices in life. They think that they are not only deserving of their power and wealth, but that society’s prosperity depends on their superior personal qualities. Nancy MacLean provides evidence on how the rich and powerful came to have their conception of superiority reinforced and acclaimed in her book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of The Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. I raised the issue in my last post sent out on March 31, “The consolidation of right-wing, anti-democratic, power by corporate and wealthy elites.” And there is something else. The narrative that says poverty is the result of individual inadequacies deflects attention away from how being born into an affluent or rich family and built-in institutional biases of the system (e.g., a highly stratified educational system, family connections, inherited wealth) allow them to gain their lofty positions. Depictions of the poor in the most negative terms and the stigmatizing of public assistance also serve to “discipline labor,” that is, to convey the message abroad in the society that there is no good alternative to employment, however bad the conditions and wages. Accept the low-wage job or suffer the stigma of poverty.

In the end, it’s all about a society that creates institutional structures and enormous inequalities that allows the accumulation of advantages at one end, and accumulation of disadvantages at the other. Here’s how Robert Kuttner describes the former in his new book, Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism.

“A child born to affluent parents has a mother and father who are likely to engage in conversation far more than their working-class counterparts do – a practice that is good for both social and cognitive development. The child is likely to be sent to a high-quality preschool, and then a good public or private elementary and secondary school, all of which contribute to educational success. Expensive enrichment activities are part of the package, while public schools are dropping programs in art, music, and foreign language. And when the child attends college, affluent parents pay the tuition, sparing the new graduate crippling debt. In an age when unpaid summer internships are key to networking, the wealthy child can afford to partake of them, while the poorer student must take paid summer jobs, as well as part-time jobs during the school year, at the expense of academic performance. Then the young graduate of means benefits from parental contacts, as well as the subsidy of an apartment or a starter home. And so it goes into the next generation, when grandparents often subsidize the costs of grandchildren. No such family welfare state benefits the nonrich student, who is sometimes working part-time to subsidize parents and younger siblings” (pp. 118-119).

A Little History

Pre-New Deal

These self-serving views of poverty and of their own powerful and privileged positions justify policies that limit public assistance to those in need, and then providing only minimal assistance. The key to defining the deserving poor is that they are viewed as unable to work. Even in the case of those deemed deserving, assistance is organized in ways that make it hard to obtain. Indeed, before the New Deal programs of the 1930s, public assistance was limited to white widows. Poor children were often or periodically housed in public or religious orphanages. Many jobs paid poverty-level wages, were insecure, involved long hours. There were no minimum wage or maximum hour laws. In 1929, steel workers worked 60 or more hours a week and, on average, earned poverty-level wages. The pace of work was intense. Employers could fire their employees “at will,” whenever and for whatever reason they chose. Most workers were non-unionized and had no organization to represent their interests. In industry, industrial spies were hired to identify union sympathizers, and scabs, or strikebreakers, were hired to replace any workers who were identified as troublemakers or who went on strike. Additionally, the poor and many others had no health insurance, no old-age pensions, no support for housing, or assistance with food. Their only recourse was the typically inadequate and inconsistent charity offered by some municipalities and religious organizations. Michael B. Katz tells this story in great depth in another of his books; this one titled In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America.

The New Deal Era

In the post-World War II decades through the 1960s, a unique set of economic and political conditions ameliorated the employment-poverty problem, as millions of jobs that paid better-than-poverty wages were created. During these atypical decades in the history of U.S. capitalism, the U.S. economy experienced high levels of investment and productivity, and overall economic growth of 4.5 percent growth between 1939-1940, 3.9 percent between 1949-1959, and 4.4 percent between 1959 and 1969 (Bluestone and Harrison, Growing Prosperity, 2000, 31) and correspondingly poverty estimates based on one authoritative source from 68.1% in 1939, to 39.8% in 1949, 22.1% in 1959, and roughly 12.0% in 1969 (Smolensky et. al., chapter in The Vulnerable,ed. By John L. Palmer, et. al., 1988, 33).

Alleged character, cultural, and genetic deficiencies do not explain this massive exodus from poverty. It’s incredulous that a sudden tens of millions of poor people found themselves in supportive and stable families, in culturally supportive community environments, and able to overcome their limited education. These are not the causes of poverty, as conservatives claim. Rather, there were opportunities that facilitated the dramatic decline in the number of poor people and in the poverty rate were the increase in the jobs that paid a better-than-poverty wages. And these opportunities resulted from tight labor markets during WWII, the worldwide economic dominance of the US economy after the war, high rates of investment in the civilian economy, the pent-up savings of consumers after the rationing of WWI, the growth of the federal government and government spending on education (e.g., the GI Bill) and other parts of the welfare state, the building of inter-state highway system, high-levels of military spending, and a union movement that helped to insure that millions of ordinary workers were able to share in the robust economic growth of the 1940s-1960s. In other words, an explanation that appears to be consistent with the dramatic decline in poverty is structural rather than individual, cultural, or genetic. A structural explanation is one that focuses on the opportunities that exist in a society for jobs, health care, education, housing, and other institutional sectors that are important to the general population, including in the lower rungs of society, and tries to explain why these opportunities are sufficient or not by looking for the causes in political and economic arrangements of the society. Of course, there was racism that kept black Americans from participating in the expanding economy as much as their white counterparts did.

Some black Americans did better than ever before, but most blacks still suffered the effects of institutional racism. Ta-Neihisi Coates reminds us that housing segregation and job discrimination continued to be the rule in most places. See his book We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. Just as black migrants from the South to northern cities had made some progress, factories began to move to the South – and then later to Mexico, China, and other “developing” countries where low-wage labor was abundant. Coates gives this example of Detroit, quoting a passage from Thomas J. Sugrue’s book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit: “Between 1947 and 1963, Detroit lost 134,000 manufacturing jobs, while its population of working-age men and women actually increased.” During these years, Detroit suffered 4 major recessions. Coates continues:

“Black residents of Detroit had to cope not just with the same structural problems as white residents but also with pervasive racism. Within a precarious economy, black people generally worked in the lowest-paying jobs. They came home from those jobs to the city’s poorest neighborhoods, where most of them used their sub-standard wages to pay inflated prices for inferior housing. Attempts to escape into white neighborhoods were frustrated by restrictive covenants, racist real-estate agents, block associations, and residents whose tactics included, as Sugrue writes, ‘harassment, mass demonstrations, picketing, effigy burning, window breaking, arson, vandalism, and physical attacks.” Some blacks were richer than others. Some were better educated than others. But all were constricted, not by a tangle of pathologies, but by a tangle of structural perils.” (pp. 269-270).

The resurgence of the right-wing

The New Deal era and the strides toward more equality, a middling-class life style began to erode in the 1970s. By the 1970s, Western Europe and Japan had made great strides in rebuilding their economies. American manufacturers faced increased increase in foreign competition, as the global economy expanded. These developments threatened profits. At the same time, however, the globalized economy gave corporations and other businesses increased advantages over workers, as they were now to move their facilities from one region of the country to another, or to other countries. Workers typically do not have such mobility. The lure of foreign markets and, in developing (or third world, underdeveloped) countries an untapped supply of low-wage workers, low taxes, and minimal government regulation, was enough for many corporations to close facilities in the U.S. and invest abroad.

At the same time, the corporate community and many of the rich were mobilized in the early 1970s on to use their vast resources to influence government policies that threatened or curtailed profits. The mobilization was precipitated by the power of unions, occupational safety laws, environmental laws, and government regulation in all its aspects (e.g., on the financial sector), the indexing of Social Security benefits and generally the continued increased government spending on social insurance and anti-poverty programs, and high corporate and income taxes. The goal was to limit the impact of government whenever it negatively affects profits or threatens the political forces on which the power of corporations and the rich depend.

They have been successful on virtually all counts. Union membership has drastically fallen. Wages have stagnated. Taxes have been reduced. The unequal distribution of incomes and wealth have grown to new heights. There are now more millionaires and billionaires than ever. Economic power has become ever-more concentrated in fewer and fewer mega-corporations. Republicans control the White House, the U.S. Congress, and have a majority on the U.S. Supreme Court. The public sector has been strapped for revenues by a no-new-taxes narrative that has gained support. Consequently, there has been a deterioration in the country’s infrastructure, and many school districts lack the funds to offer an adequate education. Notions of the public or common good have been overshadowed by a rhetoric of individualism and scorn of government. The poor are increasingly vilified. With Trump, all these developments are intensified, along with heightened xenophobic rhetoric, increasingly militarized police, racial scapegoating, and encouragement of a radical white-power movement. We now have an unprecedented number of people in jails, prisons, on probation or parole, many of whom will never be able to find regular employment or a stable life. To top it off, Trump’s core supporters, mostly affluent whites but also a considerable number of working-class whites, seem to believe to be true whatever he tells them, despite his widely reported stream of lies and contradictions.

Renewed attacks on the “poor”

As the audacious and voracious greed of the powerful and rich reach new heights, attacks on the alleged welfare abusers intensifies. The Socialist Worker argues that these are “crude attempts to finish off the social safety net,” or at least to take another step in that direction (https://socialistworker.org/2018/04/17/trump-preaches-honest-work-for-the-poor). On April 10, “Trump signed an executive order titled Reducing Poverty in America by Promoting Opportunity and Economic Mobility. It calls on the Treasury, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, and Education departments to use the next 90 days to submit a report with their recommended policies to the White House, as reported by Tara Golshan (https://www.vox.com/2018/04/18/17221292/trump-welfare-executive-order-work-requirement).

Golshan continues that Trump and his advisers are looking for a “’coordinated’ effort across federal and state agencies to reform the welfare system.” But there are clearly drastic prospective changes being considered. They want to add work requirements, change the federal assistance programs into block grants, consolidate duplicative programs, and encourage the involvement of the private sector, that is, more privatization. One principal objective is institute more stringent work requirements. They want to force more recipients of Medicaid, food stamps and public housing, and other public assistance programs to work for their benefits – and to force those already working to work more.” Two days later, after Trump’s signed the executive order, “House Republicans pushed a plan inside the 2018 Farm Bill that will expand ‘workfare’ requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – better known as food stamps – by eliminating exemptions for people living in states with high unemployment and for parents of children over five years old.”

There is little evidence that work requirements accompanying public assistance lift people out of poverty. The Socialist Worker cites a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation that finds “roughly 60 percent of non-elderly Medicaid enrollees have jobs today,” but the jobs pay so little they still qualify for the benefit. Under the new work requirements, if they lose their job, they lose their benefits. One important characteristic of the current labor market is that there is an increasing percentage of all jobs pay low wages, provide no benefits, offer no security. Robert Kuttner documents this situation in a chapter, “The Global Assault on Labor,” in his book, Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism? Here are some of his summary paragraphs.

“In the decade between 2005 and 2015, literally all of the net US job growth was in nonstandard, contingent work, according to economists Lawrence Katz and Alan Krueger. Total employment during that decade increased by 9.1 million jobs. But in the same period, nonstandard employment grew by 9.4 million. In other words, during a decade that included a steep recession followed by what appeared to be a strong recovery, all of the net job growth – and more – was in jobs that most people would take only as a last resort.

“Temporary, part-time, contract, or on-demand jobs typically have no benefits, no stability, and scant prospects of something better. Employers have largely ceased offering the standard package of a general earlier: payroll employment with regular raises, plus health insurance and pensions. Treating employees as contingent allows employers to avoid minimum wage, overtime, and antidiscrimination laws. This strategy also exempts employers from contributing their share of Social Security, Medicare, workers’ compensation, and unemployment taxes, as well as from the employer obligations in the Affordable Care Act” (p. 100).

There are two faulty assumptions underlying Trump’s public assistance reform, both of which reflect the notion that “work requirements would encourage more people to get out of the cycle of poverty.” First, the executive order cites President Bill Clinton’s 1996 reforms embodied in The Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) legislation as a successful precedent. TANF replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children, a program that provided some inadequate cash assistance to mostly poor mothers and their children. Clinton’s welfare reform added work requirements to the new law, gave states a lump sum, allowing states to allocate their funding as they saw fit, and additionally limited the number of years a family could receive assistance. Over the years, TANF has served fewer families because states did not use all the funding for the program and because of the time limit. And most of the women who leave TANF do not leave poverty but end up relying on other welfare benefits, particularly food stamps, or in low-wage jobs. In some cases, they depend on relatives whose resources are already stretched. Sasha Abramsky reviews some of the research findings related to TANF in his book, The American Way of Poverty. Here’s one of his examples.

“’In 1994-95, for every 100 families with children in poverty, the AFDC program served 75 families,’ researchers from t he Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) concluded in September 2011. ‘In 2008-09, only 28 families with children participated in TANF for every 100 families in poverty.’ In Arkansas, that number was a mere 9 percent by the end of 2009; in Mississippi, 12 percent; in Alabama, 15 percent” (p. 107).

And cash benefits fell. “By the end of 2011, the real value of TANF was lower than it was in 1996 in every state except Maryland and Wyoming” (p. 107).

Second, most of the recipients of the programs of these programs are children (living with mothers), the elderly, or disabled people. Golshan gives the example of SNAP, once known as food stamps.

“…food stamp recipients are mostly children and elderly or disabled people. The number of able-bodied adults without dependents is slim, and not nearly enough to make up the numbers in savings that the projections for this proposal indicate. Waste and fraud in the program are also relatively inconsequential.

“There is strong evidence that SNAP reduces food insecurity and improves health outcomes, especially among children, who make up the majority of SNAP beneficiaries. But the evidence from randomized studies of work requirements shows that they have little or no effect on poverty — and leave many people who aren’t induced to work without a safety net.”

The documented benefits of programs like SNAP and TANF, however meager, are ignored or dismissed by conservative lawmakers. Golshan refers to Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) as an example of the right-wing’s brutish views of public assistance. He has “proposed harsher requirements at the federal level, like tightening the window individuals have to find a job from three months to one month, increasing the number of hours they have to work per month from 80 hours to 100, and extending the requirements to able-bodied adults with dependents.”

The emergence, or re-emergence, of a poor people’s movement, and a counter narrative

Jake Johnson reports on the plans of the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC) “to revive Dr. King’s radical moral vision” of a campaign against poverty, militarism, and racism, plus environmental degradation (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2018/04/10/decrying-systems-favors-war-and-wealthy-poor-peoples-campaign-unveils-agenda-combat). The PPC views these societal problems as interconnected and, according to Johnson’s report, “all must be confronted if justice for the disenfranchised is to be achieved.”
The PPC’s own document, “A Moral Agenda Based on Fundamental Rights”, was unveiled on April 10 (https://www.poorpeoplescampaign.org/index.php/demands). It opens with an account of how the document was created.

“Over the past two years, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival has reached out to communities in more than 30 states across the nation. We have met with tens of thousands of people, witnessing the strength of their moral courage in trying times. We have gathered testimonies from hundreds of poor people and we have chronicled their demands for a better society. The following moral agenda is drawn from this deep engagement and commitment to these struggles of the poor and dispossessed. It is also ground in an empirical assessment of how we have come to this point today. The Souls of Poor Folk: Auditing America report reveals how the evils of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, and the war economy and militarism are persistent, pervasive, and perpetuated by a distorted moral narrative that must be challenged.”

The Souls of Poor Folk, produced by the PPC in conjunction with the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), was released at the same time as the PPC’s “moral agenda.” In addition to the analysis and demands identified in the moral agenda, the Souls of Poor Folks identifies in more detail the research findings that evidence “the widespread destitution and collapsing living standards that make such an ambitious agenda necessary.” Johnson reports that, according to the Souls of Poor Folks document, “more than 40 million Americans subsist below the poverty line and closer to 140 million people are dealing with some combination of structural racism, economic inequality, and ecological degradation every day.” Johnson quotes IPS director John Cavanagh on the meaning of this report.

“Here we’re proving – with data and analysis spanning 50 years – that the problem is both structural barriers for the poor in hiring, housing, policing, and more, as well as a system that prioritizes war and the wealthy over people and the environment they live in….It is unfathomable, for example, that in the wealthiest nation in the world, medical debt is the number one cause of personal bankruptcy filings, and one and a half million people don’t have access to plumbing.”

The Moral Agenda Based on Fundamental Rights

There are two parts to this 17-page document. The first part is titled “Declaration of Fundamental Rights and Poor People’s Moral Agenda.” The second part has the title “History and Moral Justification. In Part 1, the PPC addresses five systemic problems that are fostering racism, poverty and inequality, ecological devastation, the war economy and militarism, and a religiously fundamentalist stream of influence that is gaining influence in the higher circles of society. In each case, there is a review of the evidence that establishes the validity of the problem, followed by “demands” on how to ameliorate each of them. Here are examples of the demands.

On systematic racism, the PCC demands “the full restoration and expansion of the Voting Rights Act, an end to racist gerrymandering and redistricting, the implementation of automatic registration to vote at the age of 18, early voting in every state, same-day registration, the enactment of Election Day as a holiday, and a verifiable paper record.”

On poverty and inequality, the document demands, among others, “federal and state living wage laws, guaranteed annual incomes, full employment and the right for all workers to form and join unions,” along with “fully-funded welfare programs for the poor.”

On ecological devastation, one of the demands is for “100 percent clean, renewable energy and a public jobs program to transition to a green economy.”

On the war economy and militarism, the PCC call for “an end to military aggression and war-mongering,” “a stop to the privatization of the military budget and a reallocation of resources from the military budget to education, health care, jobs and green infrastructure needs, and strengthening a VA system that remains public.”

On national morality, the PCC identify the maintain that the religious right constitutes a threat of the Constitution and justice. The document reads: “Today these influences – the Christian and religious organizations, religious capitalist and prosperity gospel movements, and independent charismatics – have access to the current administration in the form of its ‘Court evangelicals.’ The Values Voter Summit has become an important focus point for this coalition and its narrative. Through federal contracts and student aid, Liberty University has become the largest private Christian University in the Country.” The PCC demands “that all policies and budgets are based on whether they serve the general welfare and lift up lives and the environment.”

In Part 2, there are references to Martin Luther King’s admonitions for a “revolution in values” to “stand together against the ‘triplets of evil – militarism, racism, and economic injustice.’” There are quotes from religious texts from the Bible, Old Testament and New Testament, and from the Qu’ran that emphasize our obligations to assist the poor, to be responsible for one another, to fight against oppression. And then the document refers to the “moral values enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution,” that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” and that citizens have a right to alter or abolish governments that violate these values and institute a new Government. The PCC then cites the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution and the 14th Amendment to the Constitution calling for the establishment of justice and the due process and equal protection of the law.

Concluding thoughts

The emergence of the Poor People’s Campaign is heartening. It includes an analysis of evidence and demands that are familiar to progressives and those on the left of the political spectrum. There is no doubt that the campaign covers a lot of important issues that have profound moral, economic, environmental and foreign policy implications.

But the PPC assumes that our corporate-dominated form of capitalism (never uses the term) can be transformed in ways to make it more just, more equal, less racist, less militaristic, a force for peace in the world, and so on. While there are historical precedents for the success of social movements and grassroots protest, their success has been limited in scope and vulnerable to reversal. It remains to be seen whether the PPC can gain traction in communities, politically, and in media coverage.

The one big historical exception is the New Deal Era, when unique confluence of conditions allowed for the institution and growth of the welfare state, a robust economy, increasing economic equality, and some success in the institution of civil rights, women’s rights, and, late in this era, the passage of a host of environmental laws. Such conditions do not apply now. And, furthermore, even during the New Deal era, the military-industrial complex grew, corporate power became more consolidated and concentrated, leftists were hounded by the government, black Americans continued to face discrimination, nuclear war was only one major accident away, and President Johnson led us into the Vietnam War based on a lie.

The best we can hope for now is that the Poor People’s Campaign grows and adds to a budding coalition of progressive movements that strengthens the political prospects of candidates who reflect at least some of the demands of the campaign in the 2018 mid-term elections and in the 2020 general election.

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