The history of poverty in the United States is depressing. So we repress it. Instead our history books talk about industrial revolutions, wars, economic prosperity, global trade, and so on. The consequences that such events have on the poor and oppressed are either whitewashed or legitimized. Our history books serve as an example of a larger ideological mission to naturalize poverty and to give us reasons to ignore it. In other words, there has been a direct and systematic attempt to make poverty appear to be innate, unchanging, irreversible, and everlasting. If people can be convinced to accept poverty, then the incentive to alleviate it is removed.
Even well meaning progressives will, unsuspectingly, get caught up in a regressive language. They will say, “Poverty is complex.” But the perception of poverty’s complexity has been conditioned in us in order to overwhelm our motivation. What if we accepted the uncontroversial fact that a small fraction of US military spending could feed, house, and educate everyone on the planet, 10 times over. If we wanted to eliminate poverty in the United States, it could be done within a week.
What is our impediment? There is a concerted effort, by those with economic and political power, to manufacture and to maintain poverty. Currently, an effort is underway to eliminate the minimum wage. On the surface, advocates will unabashedly argue that the goal is to create the cheapest possible labor force. But it should be lost on no one that the ability to push the working class into economic desperation is, in itself, a political end. People who are merely trying to survive do not have the time, the energy, or the resources for political advocacy. Economic exploitation always accompanies marginalization.
The desire to eliminate the minimum wage is only the most recent and flagrant part of an organized effort to barricade the halls of wealth and power. The series of so-called free trade agreements in the 1990s consistently lowered human rights standards abroad while, simultaneously, forcing US workers to compete with third world labor. The intent is clear: to drive down real wages and to decrease the quality of life of the working class. The tax cuts of Bush the Second’s presidency redistributed wealth from the bottom to the top in an explicit effort to further consolidate economic and political power. These efforts coincided with a national push for ‘right to work laws’ (or really, right to work for nothing laws) so that workers were politically disenfranchised while also being economically exploited. No politician worthy of the name would be foolish enough to discuss these practices in public, but the strategy is unmistakable. There is a political motivation to fossilize poverty.
Unfortunately, the Obama years have made the problem worse. The bailouts of the banks assured the financial sector that they will always be protected. In order to guarantee poverty, the powerful maintain this simple equation: privatize profits, socialize losses. After the downturn of 2008, everyone has become poorer except the people who caused the crash. To call this an accident ignores the facts and ignores the history. Still, there are people, many people, who genuinely want to combat poverty. But this needs to be done with eyes wide open. To face poverty is not to fight laziness or circumstance or ability; these are mirages. To combat poverty is to take the fight directly against those who have consciously made poverty one of the most shameful institutions of the United States.