Last week, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of a War on Poverty, the New York Times published this column, calling the results of the effort a mixed bag. It’s a good, fairly concise read and includes multiple policy perspectives on the matter. Thusly, different people will have different takeaways from the column, but I especially liked these few lines: ” … The more important driver of the still-high poverty rate, researchers said, is the poor state of the labor market for low-wage workers and spiraling inequality. Over the last 30 years, growth has generally failed to translate into income gains for workers — even as the American labor force has become better educated and more skilled …”
There’s a deeper, underlying problem at play not mentioned in the column, however: in addition to improvements in policy, combating poverty requires changes in our prevailing attitudes toward the poor. We must replace antipathy with empathy.
This is not to downplay the importance of policy and how it impacts the less fortunate. Indeed, much is at stake, and we must continue to fight on their behalf. We must fight to INCREASE food stamp benefits. Fight to INCREASE social security benefits. Fight to INCREASE access to housing, to educational and job training opportunities, and to affordable health care. And, etc. But too often, as we’re engaged in well-intended advocacy, many Republicans and others are instead engaged in full-throated derision, and substantive policy debates never actually materialize.
We must call out such ugly antipathy for what it is. It’s not good enough to ignore it and hope that the public is reasonable enough to do the same. The public, after all, tends to pay more attention to the louder voices, even when it disagrees with the message.
The unabashed hatred for the poor expressed in this Howie Carr column from this past Sunday is a good example of the sort of thing we should demand that we all — Democrats and Republicans, alike — reject. Here, Carr brays about “the single mother with two kids (the typical welfare ‘family’)” and Obama’s “shiftless, lowlife base,” while offering no real solutions to address the problem of poverty. He only offers the patented “Get A Job!”-line, while blithely ignoring the harsh reality that there is only one job opening for every three who are unemployed. (This reality also happens to be a very good reason why it’s so important that neither Congress nor the State House make cuts to unemployment insurance.)
To see progress on the policy front, our attitudes must change. But so long as hateful attitudes toward the poor like Carr’s are considered to be acceptable parts of the public dialogue, we’ll get nowhere.