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Barbara Ehrenreich: How I Discovered the Truth About Poverty

Prevailing attitudes towards poverty blame the victim. Here's why that's so wrong.

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“The lower-class individual lives from moment to moment... Impulse governs his behavior... He is therefore radically improvident: whatever he cannot consume immediately he considers valueless… [He] has a feeble, attenuated sense of self.”

In the "hardest cases," Banfield opined, the poor might need to be cared for in “semi-institutions... and to accept a certain amount of surveillance and supervision from a semi-social-worker-semi-policeman.”

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.)

Even today, more than a decade later and four years into a severe economic downturn, as people continue to  slide into poverty from the middle classes, the theory maintains its grip. If you’re needy, you must be in need of correction, the assumption goes, so TANF recipients are routinely instructed in how to improve their attitudes and applicants for a growing number of safety-net programs are subjected to drug-testing. Lawmakers  in 23 states are considering testing people who apply for such programs as job training, food stamps, public housing, welfare, and home heating assistance. And on the theory that the poor are likely to harbor criminal tendencies, applicants for safety net programs are increasingly subjected to finger-printing and computerized searches for outstanding warrants.

Unemployment, with its ample opportunities for slacking off, is another obviously suspect condition, and last year  12 states considered requiring pee tests as a condition for receiving unemployment benefits. Both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have suggested drug testing as a condition for  allgovernment benefits, presumably including Social Security. If granny insists on handling her arthritis with marijuana, she may have to starve.

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.

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