18 November 2013

Poverty Denialism: 'there are plenty of jobs for the taking'

A brief piece in the current Nation by Michelle Goldberg on alleged "Poverty Denialism" had a familiar ring to it for me. Goldberg defines "poverty denialism" as the premise, expressed by some Republicans, that few people, if any, are really suffering in the current economy. These Republicans don't infer from that observation that the economy is in good shape. Instead, they complain that the poor have it too good as dependents upon the state and thus have no incentive to get real jobs. As Goldberg writes:

It seems that to be a contemporary Republican, one must simultaneously believe two things: that Obama has immiserated the country and driven unemployment to intolerable levels, and that the poor have it easy and there are plenty of jobs out there for the taking. When the tension between these two beliefs gets to be too great, Republicans will usually tilt toward the latter.

The part about "plenty of jobs out there" is the point most likely to be disputed by non-Republicans. I heard that very point asserted by a co-worker recently. He leans Republican but is probably more of a libertarian at heart, having little use for the cultural issues important to many Tea Partiers. We talk politics occasionally, and he's a far more civil conversationalist than my old sparring partner Mr. Right, whom I see little of since I was moved to another floor of our office building. Politics doesn't really come up too often in our talks, but one day he observed that there were jobs for the taking, but many supposed poor people weren't taking them. I always like to challenge people who make such claims to prove not that there are jobs, but that they actually know people who do as they described. He claimed that he did. His current job at our office was a step up for him; at lower rungs of the job market, he claimed to know people who would readily quit if they got dissatisfied for any reason, on the assumption that they could collect as much money, if not more, from the state.

One can assume that this was a very low rung on the job ladder. How you interpret this story depends on whether you're ideologically inclined to see the glass as half-full or half-empty.  A liberal might say that this is the employer's problem; if he wants workers to stay, he should pay them better or treat them better. Viewed from the right, the problem is that the government gives the disgruntled worker a perverse incentive to take himself out of the workforce. From this perspective, both the person and the nation would be better off if he stayed on the job, or found something better in the private sector.

My co-worker isn't the most dogmatic person; I've gotten him to acknowledge an unfairness in the way employers can leave employees behind by outsourcing, etc., without accountability to anyone else. I wonder whether he recognizes a similar unfairness in the situation he describes, or in the way he interprets it. The implicit assumption is that the employer is always right; that it's not up to him to give employees incentives to stay on the job; that the state should not force him to pay more to compete with the dole. That last point could be argued objectively -- if the workforce functioned more fairly than it seems to now. Once you start talking about fairness, however, many Republicans stick their fingers in their ears and start singing loudly. What a liberal, progressive or leftist may think of as fairness strikes the Republican as dictation by the poor to the rich. On the other end, Republicans have a hard time thinking of the rich dictating to the poor, because the conditions others might describe in those terms are just the Market at work, and the Market is the opposite of any kind of dictatorship. That blind spot may explain more of Republicans' peculiar perception of things. Because they can't imagine the Market as a kind of dictatorship, they assume that everyone, or just about everyone, has found his level in the economy based on the decisions he has freely made -- has gotten what he deserves. They look at the Dow Jones average breaking the 16,000 barrier and assume that anyone who isn't getting ahead has himself (or the government) to blame. With no offense to Michelle Goldberg, the problem isn't that Republicans deny poverty, but that they define it differently -- as a behavioral rather than a systemic problem for which the state can provide no solution apart from getting rid of incentives to idleness. They miss the old days when poor people were ashamed to go on "relief" and refused to do so as long as possible. But they shouldn't hold their breath waiting for those days to return. The power of shame -- our sense of accountability to the opinion of others -- depends on a sociocultural consensus that no longer exists. Who cares what X thinks of me if X is nothing but a Y? Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, keep trying to shame each other in vain. Until all the country's factions can again agree on a good they envision for everyone -- on some material standard of fairness -- perceiving poverty differently will be one of the least of our problems.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

All those jobs the repugnicans love to talk about are low-wage, part-time service jobs. eg. Working the counter at Dunkin Donuts. These jobs pay at or below the poverty level and do NOT pay enough for a worker to support himself/herself, let alone a family.

Repugnicans are self-serving scum who care nothing for their fellow countrymen - let alone the rest of the human race. If all of those people repugnicans thumb their noses at had the brains and will to actually unite and stand up, repugnicans would be voted out of power once and for all.