When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.- Hélder Câmara
Much of the study of economic inequality - including and especially poverty - is irrevocably tainted with the brush of the 'dismal science'. Mainstream economists and statisticians, backed by an unwavering faith in capitalist theory and market forces, have by now completely lost sight of the big picture. They conveniently forget to account for variables, to adhere to the most basic principles of logic and the scientific method.
And for some reason, this effect is especially potent when the topic of the day is economic downturn. It's as if they tell themselves: Don't ask which sectors are growing and which are shrinking. Don't ask what is being made with which resources, or where all the money is going. Whatever you do, don't try to piece together the bigger picture. Just focus on 'what is'. The market has dictated how things will be done, and so it shall be.
I happened to run into a stellar example of this madness when an otherwise-interesting headline "Poverty rate is highest in 15 years, says professor" drew my attention. The reference is that to an interview given about a book "America's Poor and the Great Recession", which discusses - you guessed it - how the poor fared during the "Great Recession". The synopsis seems to be that the poor fared even worse than usual (go figure), and that steps should be taken to rectify the situation. Interesting, right?
Well, maybe not. Now I have to confess: I haven't read the book. But if this short interview is any guide, it's better that I haven't.
"About 46 million Americans, according to our latest count, are poor. That means for a family of four, they're living on less than $23,000 a year," said sociologist Kristin Seefeldt, assistant professor at the U-M School of Social Work and affiliated with the Ford School of Public Policy. "This is the highest rate of poverty that we've had in about 15 years."
Seefeldt's research with John Graham of Indiana University focused on the safety net for the poor and how it performed during the recession.
Some programs worked, such as federal food programs and Medicaid, while federal cash assistance for the nondisabled poor and federal housing programs did not respond much to the burgeoning numbers of families in need of help.'
Charitable donations for programs that service the poor declined abruptly during the recession and have not yet recovered. Fiscal pressures on government may lead to cutbacks in programs that assist the poor.
At this point, you might expect the conclusion to be: a society which relies on private charity to contain poverty condemns the poor to even graver suffering when a recession (or worse) strikes. Most of the public has less to give - or, feels like they have less to give - and so even that well dries up.
At the same time, the rich actually end up winning. They regroup their initial losses much more quickly because they have more assets to draw upon, and soon enough they've resumed their quest of accumulation. Most of this is intuitive, and not at all difficult to grasp.
But this is what Seefeldt has to offer instead:
"More than anything else, what is needed is a rapidly growing economy," Seefeldt said. "A more robust recovery will help the poor, stimulating philanthropic giving and reducing the temptations of politicians to cut spending for the safety net."
Oh. Apparently we just need to get back to the status quo. Gosh, if only the economy was roaring and people had money to give to charity, everything would be okay. Never mind that the undying pursuit of "a rapidly growing economy" is what causes crises like these in the first place. Just hope for the best!
Mind you, it's not that Seefeldt and Graham don't offer any tangible solutions, it's that those they do are all caught within the paradigm of mainstream economics, drenched in free-market rhetoric. Their primary suggestion is that America "modernize" some of its struggling anti-poverty programs. What exactly is meant by modernization is left unsaid, but if it's anything at all like how most of the social safety net in America has been reformed in the past few decades, it's likely to result in more privatization and gutting. Both "growth" and "modernization" have long been keywords for more and more market liberalization, and academic researchers do no one any favors by getting ensnared in this web.
Seefeldt also holds up the example of training programs for those who have been unemployed longer than 6 months, claiming "if they haven't found a job now, they're probably going to need to upgrade their skills to do so.". Again, the focus is incredibly misguided, and plays right into the hands of those who seek to shift the blame to workers for not being enticing enough. If people without jobs are fully to blame for their current situation, well, then they're deserving only of pity or scorn. It certainly couldn't be that there simply aren't jobs available to be taken, or anything like that, could it?
Lars Schaff notes how recent unemployment in Sweden has brought on this same kind of argumentation:
..the fact is that practically all unemployment is due to lack of jobs and nothing else!
In the wonderful neoliberal world no demands are imposed on the business community and the corporations, to create more jobs. The unemployed are fooled with the “theories” of “supply economics” saying that if they just try hard enough to find a job there will materialize an employment out of nowhere, through some miraculous process that the holy market principles will provide.
Yes, in essence this is all supply-side (trickle-down) economics. The recommendation is to induce growth - which primarily benefits the wealthy - while the onus is on the poor to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and gain skills that will supposedly make them more attractive in the job market. The fact our intrepid researchers pay lip service to social programs may be seen as a positive, but we should be mindful that it also offers the false assurance that such problems can be solved with a sort of 'capitalism-lite'. None of the programs they advocate for are nearly comprehensive enough to eliminate poverty. There's nothing anywhere near a living wage, for starters.
What's most damning about all of this, though, is that the recession which prompted the study in the first place was caused by the richest of the rich, who created the complex financial instruments which brought the world economy to its knees, at the same time they were betting on it happening just to offset their own risk. None of these maniacs have seen any jail time, nor will they (in this case, not only do they have the resources to escape prosecution, but the great majority of what they did was "legal" in the first place), and yet nowhere is there any mention of this in the interview. I would hope it's in the book, but then again who knows. That might be seen as too antagonistic, akin to invoking the dreaded term "class warfare". You could be called a communist, or something similar. And everyone knows if you wish to be taken seriously in America, avoiding those type of charges is paramount - especially so when you're researching poverty, and it's already on the tip of people's tongues.
They say these are just academic studies - concerned with what happened and how to fix it, not with laying blame. But that's a cop out. Science itself has fallen for the worst of political ruses, believing that the bipartisan consensus on economics - and the control of top business schools by self-serving right-wing interests which formulate that consensus - is similar in nature to that which might be reached on issues concerning the hard sciences. But, as Phillip Pilkington notes, mainstream economics "resembles less a gathering of scientists actively engaged in discovery of new and interesting truths and more a collection of theologians debating logically consistent stupidities founded on imaginary constructions."
The problem is there's no way to fully understand the nature of the beast when you approach it with such a limited perspective. You simply can't claim to have a scholarly grasp of capitalism without coming to the obvious conclusion that - even with a significant social safety net - the rich benefit from its excesses at a much higher rate than everyone else, while the poor suffer the worst of its shortages. And even that neglects to mention that there is a further incentive for those who hold significant wealth to maintain this system regardless of how unjust it may be. These are basic facts, which, while inconvenient when attempting to reconcile our ethics with that of the realities of the market-driven economy, cannot be ignored by anyone attempting a scientific study of the matter.
Either Seefeldt and Graham understand this (they might, given that Cornel West is involved in promoting their book) and have fallen prey to partisan politics and lesser-of-evilism, or they've been coerced into the camp of True Believers. Honestly, I'm not sure which is worse anymore.
Our approach to solving poverty should be to identify the root of the problem and attack it there, no matter what the "current political environment" dictates. Truth is not something we should compromise in order to please a bunch of well-to-do old men sitting in comfortable chairs who, for the most part, offer the public nothing but contempt. Assuming all of us in this discussion are actually interested in ending poverty (which, unfortunately, is not exactly a given), this isn't a matter of differing interpretations of reality. It's a matter of what works and what doesn't. Token reforms implemented within the current economic system have not worked, and indeed were never designed to work in the first place.
So no, we shouldn't "provide some policy recommendations that perhaps even in these tough political times could be implemented." We should provide some policy recommendations that will end poverty. Period. Full stop.