‘Competitive’ Poverty?


I am just beginning to read Nancy Isenberg’s ‘White Trash.’ In my continuing efforts, not merely to understand the unsettling political tsunami that has swamped US politics this past year, but also to find a more healthy way for Democrats (and maybe Republicans) to address the very real issues at its core, as opposed merely and regularly to expressing horror at their latest, most toxic demonstration.

Several thoughts immediately occur. And I’m going to try hard to stay away from tendentious and conventional sloganeering and stereotyping. But I may present some notions that could disturb.

There are some who believe that many, if not most, of the most seemingly intractable problems in society are, at base, economic. And that many, if not most of them, relate to the irrational (even if understandable) frustrations with their lot of those who are the most economically disadvantaged.

I have read some authors who truly believe that poverty is insoluble. That it will always be with us. We should accept its existence. Shrug. And move on. I am not one of those. Provided the intent is sincere, I am always open to listening to those who genuinely wish to find ways either to allow those who are disadvantaged to improve their situation, or to find more dignified ways to ease their plight.

However, I think it fair to recognize that the difficulties associated with addressing in a humane fashion the issues associated with those who are disadvantaged are not open to easy or rapid solution. Which may make it seem as if those difficulties will never go away.

What is certain is that the complexity of the issues themselves, the lack of any political muscle associated with those who are disadvantaged, and the length of time it takes to advance and then implement any new policies, means that those who are disadvantaged often, and understandably, may feel that they are being ignored.

This sense of being ‘forgotten,’ allied to the shortness of all election cycles, and the natural consequence that those who are disadvantaged are not always the best educated and those most open to reason, may more often than not lead to ugly and sometimes violent expression of the innate frustrations.

Treading carefully, but addressing the concept in any event, I think it may be fair to say that, whether one chooses to classify, categorize, stereotype (choose your language as you see fit) into allocations according to race, gender, religion, whatever, as a general rule, those in any ‘category’ who are the most disadvantaged are likely not those most able or willing to reason and rationalize.

To this, I add the observation that those who are the most disadvantaged in any ‘category’ very often find themselves living right alongside each other. In high density living conditions. Poor materials. Bad economic and social conditions. Literally fighting for the same scarce resources. And rubbing up badly against each other.

Is it not understandable that, living in this close proximity, in conditions of severe disadvantage, those who are different by ‘category’ may find themselves in a state of ‘competitive’ poverty? A ‘competition’ which finds expression in the ugliest of manner?

I know this sounds simplistic. It is. But I wonder if we are not forgetting some simple truths among all the desecration emanating currently from Washington?

So. We have an event like Ferguson, Missouri. Leaving to one side any discussion of the rights and wrongs of long-term racial disadvantage. I hope we can all agree that there was an explosion of anger resulting from the tension that clearly existed between many in lower income black communities and mostly white police officers. And that this anger was replicated across the United States.

At the same time, we read day after day that the Trump phenomenon is, in large part, a not dissimilar explosion of anger by the ‘forgotten’ lower income white community against the coastal intellectual elite.

Of course, there is a racial, religious aspect to all this explosion of anger. But to what extent is this symptom rather than cause? When we are angry, we do not calmly look for long-term solution. Especially when we have no political strength. We strike out. Where it will make us feel the best. It raises in each of us our worst aspects. And the bully will always highlight the difference to hurt the most.

However. Just as it is counterproductive to engage in dissertation about the relative merits of the claims of those who are disadvantaged (poor black versus poor white, poor Protestant versus poor Muslim), so it is equally senseless to pretend that human nature, as I have described it, is not … well … human nature.

Surely the answer is to accept that anyone who is disadvantaged and feels ignored, as so many do with justification in US society, is entitled to have the better-off in the same society find ways, with dignity and grace, to allow all who are disadvantaged to be fully engaged in designing a better future for themselves?

For the past fifty years, much effort has been expended in exploring opportunities to overcome what was felt as being the unnatural disadvantage visited on those of color in our nation. There are some who feel even more needs to be done. There are others who feel that it was the efforts to date that helped to trigger the rise of Trump this past year.

I am of the opinion that both viewpoints contain truth. Clearly the issue of disadvantage in the black community has not been fully addressed. Equally, one would have to be blind to pretend that the attempts to address it so far have not been characterized by some in the disadvantaged white community in unflattering and racist terms.

I do not excuse the language, nor do I dismiss the feelings it arouses. But I do ask us to consider both in the context of ‘competitive’ poverty. For why? So that we Democrats begin to understand that, if we are to expend great effort on the disadvantaged of one section of our society (effort that I applaud), then unless we find truly encompassing and empowering efforts to address disadvantage all across our society, without any of us resorting to division, comparison or bias based on race, religion, gender, whatever, then we are as responsible for the continuation and deepening of the division as much as the skinhead screaming racial slurs at a rally, or the hooded protester hurling rocks at storefronts.

Which is all a fancy-smanchy way of saying that I hate hateful speech and action. But merely to condemn and blame is not enough. To respond in a way that promotes the disadvantage of one section of society over another, to prolong ‘competitive’ poverty, makes us no better than Trump. Where we need to distinguish ourselves as Democrats must be in demanding that we address disadvantage across the board, without favor or bias.


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