The P-Word: Challenging A Taboo in American Politics

In the wake of the Paula Deen kerfuffle and the Zimmerman trial, the attention of Americans has again been drawn to taboo words. The most infamous of these is the “N-Word,” about which a lot has been written and said lately. However, there are other words that are considered too controversial to be uttered in public.

One of these is the P-Word: poverty. The word has several cognates: poor, an adjective that denotes lack of quality, a lack of means, or a pitiable condition; and, the poor, referring to people who suffer a lack of means.  The P-Word is conspicuously absent from political discourse in contemporary America. Only a few left-wing publications and left-leaning political and economic writers are willing to discuss poverty. The political establishment is scrupulous in its avoidance of any mention of poverty. Both the current administration and its congressional opponents focus their political criticisms on the harm that the other is doing to the “middle class.” President Obama has referred to those who “want to join the middle class,” but beyond this, the man Newt Gingrich labeled “the food stamp president” has been careful not to identify his policies with the needs of the poor.

The media establishment has been less likely to avoid the term. But they use it in a way that implies that poverty in the US exists in a vacuum, unrelated to the actions of corporate elites or government policies. News about declining wages, unemployment, Medicaid expansion, and home foreclosures is reported with the same lack of urgency as sports scores, crime, stock market numbers, traffic and weather reports, and other occurances of everyday life. Solicitations for contributions to fight homelessness among veterans and to restock food pantries call upon our concern for our fellow citizens without any reference to the larger framework that illuminates the causes of homelessness and hunger. Collectively, government, corporations, and media conspire to maintain a syntactical and psychological paradox: there are poor people, but there is not poverty.

According to the US Census Bureau, there were 46.2 million Americans living in poverty in 2011. That’s about 15 per cent of the population. By now these numbers are higher. The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued poverty guidelines for 2013. These guidelines define poverty in the contiguous forty-eight states as an annual income of $23,550 for a family of four. In round numbers, that’s less than $2000 each month, less that $500 a week. For a family of four people. That’s less that $100 per week per person; less than $20 per day. On the other hand Gallup indicates that in June, 2013, the self-reported daily expenditure of “average income” survey respondants was $90, and $143 for “upper-income” respondants.

But the measurement of poverty in money doesn ‘t give the whole picture. It doesn’t measure contributors to or detractors from physical and mental health; access to healthful nutritional food; the quality of schools; access to information; intellectual and cultural resources in the home and the community; the quality and stability of housing; personal safety; access to employment at a livable wage; and, access to vocational information and training. These and other indicators of wellbeing are the more substantial measures of whether one is living in poverty. They reflect a system of integrated environmental conditions that determine a person’s place within the class structure the existence of which our elites are so anxious to deny.

The focus of all recent economic discourse has been the “middle class,” a poorly defined abstraction that is the only permissible use of the term “class” in our society. To protest the attacks on the wellbeing of those who supposedly constitute this group is decried by the spokespersons for the right wing as “class warfare,” reinforcing the dogma that any reference to “class” must be a Marxist attack on the American value system.

This distortion of the perception of themselves by what would be called the “working class” in most developed societies has been successful because most Americans have been told again and again that they are part of the “middle class.” However much their incomes have stagnated for three decades, however much their confidence in their ability to maintain their health care and live in dignity after retirement has eroded; however much their sense of security about their future and that of their children has diminished, most Americans believe that they are the middle class. Lacking any experience of upward mobility, they find themselves sinking onto the sediment of poverty, with only the poor to cushion them against the brutal reality of their condition.

This is because, just the “middle class” is a constuction that has no objective correlates in the real political economy of the US, “poverty” is also a construct void of sociohistorical context. And thus it has been since the eighteenth century. Poverty is defined in terms of a set of personal defects that can be used to categorize  groups  and isolate them from successful participation in the capitalist economy. Poverty, from this point of view is the result of cultural and personal inadequacies that bring with them all of the deprivations that characterize the lives of poor people. For the most part, the poor “deserve” their poverty. They are described as lazy, as profligate, and intemporate. The fact that most poor people work, and that they work hard in the most grueling and exhausting jobs, at the lowest wages, is conveniently overlooked. The circular arguments that justify withholding the resources that can lift communities out of poverty reinforce the fragmentation of society into defenseless individuals, while maintaining cruel amusements in the form of finding and helping the “deserving poor.”

Meanwhile, Americans in general are led to believe that we are all part of the middle class, even as many of us slip into poverty. Thus politicians and pundits continue to talk about the middle class while the middle class standard of living continues to elude millions of people and nothing is being done about it. Poverty is everywhere, but we are brainwashed into not seeing it, even when it is evident all around us. The problem is that if we see poverty we might also see the poor. And if we see the poor as people, as fellow Americans, we might begin to see that we have more in common with them than it is comfortable to admit. We might see that they are us if we miss a few paychecks; if we suffer a catastrophic health crisis; if our pension is stolen in the next round of “reforms” imposed by the corporate-political elites; if our conscience forbids us to abandon an elderly parent who needs our care when we would otherwise be working a second – or even first – job; if we find ourselves working to exhaustion at one or even two soul-destroying minimum-wage-less-than-full-time-no-health-insurance jobs. Politicians ignore the poor because the poor are isolated in rural and urban wastelands of despair, because the poor have no lobbyists, no PACs, no realistic representation in the media, and no tools to combat their marginalization.

If, as Gandhi said, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members,” than the greatness of the US is surely in question. We who might indeed be part of the “middle class” must not let our “leaders” continue to act as if poverty and poor people don’t exist. We must have the courage to say the P-Word, loud and often.


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