18 July 2014
Poverty in the Home of Uncle Sam
Checking out the headlines on Google News this morning, I noticed that the Editors' Picks on the main page included a photo essay from Slate about poverty in Troy, New York, the city in which I was born and where I currently work. Here's the link to the story. It was interesting to see people from around the country, if not beyond, pass judgment on people who are nearly my neighbors, even though I know none of them personally. The pictures portray "white trash" so the inevitably contemptuous commentary is more misanthropic than simply bigoted. You'll see a lot of predictable ranting about the need for more birth control, more "personal responsibility," etc., etc. If only they had the will and the discipline, these people could lift themselves from poverty -- you've read it all, certainly. I'm not sure whether these poor Trojans are that much more dysfunctional than their grandparents. It's probably more likely that in their grandparents' time, the economy could still use people like these, but now it doesn't need them. That would put a greater pressure on them to strive and excel than their grandparents would have felt, assured as many of them probably were of jobs in "the mill" from the day they graduated high school to the day they retired. None of this makes the present-day poor blameless for their plight, but you can't judge them so inferior to their forebears unless you also acknowledge how much harder the times are. It might help, too, if you consider that it's not these people's fault that the times are harder, as some may believe. If you have an "adapt or die" attitude none of this will trouble you much, but it remains our prerogative, so long as the economy is a social construct and not a natural phenomenon, to ask "adapt to what?" and "sez who?" Exceptional people will pull themselves out of poverty, but it wasn't part of our social contract previously that only the exceptional should have a decent life. This sort of hopeless-looking poverty will stay with us until the American economy finds places for these people, instead of expecting them to shape themselves into the remaining slots, or until we no longer have the sort of surplus population that burdens many post-industrial nations. Either way, we could be waiting a while, and it may not get any prettier.