Our Endless War on the Poor: American society persistently refuses to address the root cause of poverty.

AuthorPiven, Frances Fox

From the earliest initiatives to relieve the condition of the poor in the late middle ages, the design of these programs has been dominated by the fear that even meager resources for subsistence would weaken the motivation of poor people to work. Hence the belief among ruling groups that such poor relief must always be stingy and distributed on punitive terms.

These principles were cruel, but given the harsh conditions of the laboring poor at the time, they were not irrational.

Contemporary conditions, particularly in rich countries like the United States, are entirely different. Not only are the mass of working people much better off, but extracting more labor effort for economic growth worsens the problem of climate change. For the first time in living memory, reformers are talking about "degrowth" as a remedy for the dangers to the planet posed by constant growth.

In the current coronavirus crisis, the role of the poor and especially low-income workers has been magnified. They are the ones doing the difficult and now-dangerous work of tending to people in nursing homes and old-age facilities, keeping drug and grocery stores open, and caring for the ill.

It is past time to rethink our endless war on the poor.

The United States is by some measures the richest and most powerful nation in the world. It also boasts, if that is the right word, the second-highest poverty rate among developed countries, according to a 2017 ranking. (Israel has the highest rate at 17.9 percent. The United States is a smidgeon lower, at 17.8 percent, or about forty million people.) Our child poverty rate, as of 2017, is also among the highest in the world.

Since the eruption of the Occupy protests in 2011, the fact of widening inequality in the United States has be come common knowledge and a part of our political discourse. The extent of poverty in the United States is less well-known, even though poverty is one likely result of the policies that produce inequality.

The fortunes reaped from steadily rising housing or health care prices are reflected in the high costs that working and poor families pay for them. Child care costs are another out-of-reach essential, particularly as access to government benefits is increasingly conditional on working for wages.

Meanwhile, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, most workers have seen their wages stagnate or even fall as their fringe benefits or overtime were whittled away. Federal budgets under the Trump Administration have regularly delivered large tax cuts to the affluent while slashing programs that provide services or income support for the poor.

To give just one example, some 700,000 people may lose food stamps under a new Trump regulation, and half a million children will lose free school meals. Meanwhile, the federal minimum wage remains stuck at the level set in 2009: $7.25 an hour.

None of this is in the least surprising. American policies to support the poor have usually provided meager assistance, and that assistance has usually been conditioned on submission to rituals of degradation, much as was also once true in the European countries on which our policies were modeled.

In fact, the English Poor Law Commission of 1848 articulated the principle that best explains these features of our poverty policies, the principle of "less eligibility' meaning that no one who survives on the dole should be as well-off as even the lowest paid laborer. This principle can be regarded as a moral injunction, but it has the very...

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