Friday, May 04, 2007

Poverty? Who, Me?

A propos of this discussion by Mark Schmitt over at The American Prospect concerning how Democrats ought to frame their economic policy prescrptions--whether in terms of "reducing poverty" or "promoting inclusion"--I strongly favor something closer to the latter, although the word "inclusion" is in itself too jargony to be useful. "Rebuilding the middle class," another alternative mentioned by Schmitt, might be a better way of saying much the same thing.

The unfortunate reason: The vast majority of Americans, and especially of voters, don't associate themselves with "poverty." Therefore they think of poverty-reduction as something that gives money to "those other people," who are probably of a different race, ethnic, or cultural background from themselves and therefore quite possibly undeserving.

Given this fact, it's actually remarkable and heartening that a sizeable portion of Americans nonetheless support poverty-reduction programs (as the survey cited here indicates). But I suspect that such support will generally be shallow and inconsistent, not a solid foundation on which to build an electoral majority.

It wasn't always this way in America. When I was growing up, during what we can now recognize as the heyday of liberalism (the 1950s and 60s), most Americans strongly favored anti-poverty programs. They certainly voted that way. (Starting in 1954, Democrats, mainly liberals, controlled the House of Representatives for forty solid years.) One huge reason is that many middle-class people vividly remembered the Great Depression. As a result, they understood in their bones that, while they and their families might not be poor today (and perhaps hadn't even been poor in the 1930s), poverty was a real threat that could strike anyone without warning and regardless of personal virtue or merit.

The great conservative takeover in the 1980s coincided with the gradual fading of those Depression-era memories and the rise to power of a new generation (the baby boomers) many of whom, somewhat naively, believed that widespread economic failure was a thing of the past. They were ripe targets for demogogues who proceeded to inculcate in them the notion that poverty was an affliction that ailed "them," never "us," and that therefore we (the "decent, hard-working people") could safely neglect the poor without fearing the consequences.

We boomers have now lived long enough and faced enough economic dislocations that we are having second thoughts about those complacent assumptions. But we still haven't suffered the kind of traumatic economic catastrophe our parents lived through (knock wood) and therefore haven't yet gotten over our ingrained sense that the word "poverty" will never be associated with "our kind of people."

So from a purely political point of view--as a matter of salesmanship--I think we Democrats still need to describe our programs in terms of middle-class support rather than poverty-alleviation: not to mislead anyone, but to avoid misleading them. Because when we say "reduce poverty," people hear, "a program for the few," whereas when we say, "help the middle class," they hear, "a program for the many"--and in fact it is the many we are trying to protect.

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