Too rich, too poor, too bad

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Esther Cepeda
September 11, 2011
— Joblessness, the general economic malaise and a never-ending stream of depressing statistics—the number of people in poverty, the millions of dollars that corporate CEOs are being paid in bonuses or severance—have made 2011 the year when it became OK to hate both the rich and the poor.

Look at comment boards on news websites or social media networks: Accompanying reports predicting we’re in for a long slog of continued economic doldrums are heated barbs personifying both the wealthy and the impoverished as greedy, entitled forces of evil that are ruining America.

It’s not surprising, really—when people feel vulnerable, the natural response is to lash out.

“There have been other times when there were huge gulfs between the rich and the poor, such as during the Gilded Age, but I think the disparity between rich and poor now may be even worse,” said Phil DeVol, a consultant with aha! Process Inc., a publishing and training company that educates organizations such as schools and municipalities about poverty and class issues.

“The rhetoric out there is probably worse than I’ve ever seen it, and there is a lack of reasonable middle-ground conversations. So when the talk-radio folks and the cable-TV programs and the institutes who churn out information create narratives, it creates extreme mental models.”

Extreme, indeed. Though the national conversation has finally “pivoted” to job-creation efforts, it was only a few weeks ago that Warren Buffett was wagging his finger at “coddled” millionaires and billionaires to pay more taxes. And Congress will soon be back on its government-shrinking crusade, pointing to the undeserving poor—who need government-subsidized health care or food assistance but dare have access to an Xbox or air conditioning—as examples of how government largesse has run amok.

In July the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, put out a white paper—“Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an Xbox: What Is Poverty in the United States Today?”—ostensibly aimed at ensuring that “exaggeration and misinformation” don’t hamper the development of well-targeted, effective programs to reduce poverty.

“The actual standard of living among America’s poor is far higher than the public imagines and … in fact, most of the persons whom the government defines as ‘in poverty’ are not poor in any ordinary sense of the term,” the report reads. “The home of the typical poor family was not overcrowded and was in good repair. In fact, the typical poor American had more living space than the average European.”

Do not believe, the report warns us, that the worst-case-poverty scenarios presented in the media reflect the average poor person’s experience. Most poor people aren’t destitute; they’re better off than you’d think. Plus, those overblown official U.S. poverty numbers make us look bad geopolitically—the Chinese government uses these “misleading” Census Bureau poverty reports to condemn the U.S. government for human rights violations.

Give the authors credit for including in their analysis the fact that new poverty resulting from the Great Recession will be largely due to working-class families losing their jobs. Obviously, they wouldn’t necessarily “dispose of their normal household conveniences in those circumstances.” So if you’ve been out of work for two years and still have a roof over your head, and an air-conditioning unit, maybe you’re not such a drag on society.

I agree with the report’s authors that wise public policy cannot be based on misinformation or misunderstanding, and with the underlying belief that government resources should be allocated strictly to the neediest among us. But implying that people who are not homeless, or close to it, are undeserving of support and certainly undeserving of sympathy is a sure recipe for bad policy.

As DeVol told me, figuring out how public and private entities will work together to help the poor in our new age of austerity will have to center on “coming together across class lines, developing working relationships with mutual respect, and making decisions about our future, together.”

For that we need to drop the easy stereotypes and extend understanding across income brackets. Not all rich people are selfish robber barons—just ask the nonprofit foundations that take corporate and private billions and donate them to the arts, education and social services—any more than all poor people are a bottomless drain on society.

But that’s a tall order, so let’s start by agreeing that someone can own a DVD player and still go hungry at night.

Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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