Birth Lottery Winners Expect “Character and Values” Litmus Test for the Poor

Before examining President Barack Obama’s recent—and some suggest promising—willingness to address poverty, in the wake of a similar slow-to-wake concern for racism, we must clarify who are the poor. As Matt Bruenig explains, and presents in graphic form (below):

who are the poor

As you can see, more than 80% of the officially poor are either children, elderly, disabled, students, or the involuntarily unemployed (while the majority of the remaining officially poor are carers or working people who didn’t face an unemployment spell). I bring up these 80%+ because these are the classic categories of people that are considered vulnerable populations in capitalist economies. These are the categories of people that all welfare states target resources to in one form or another, the good ones very heavily.

Now, as we are clear that the largest single group of poor are children and the vast majority of poor are “vulnerable populations,” let’s consider the qualified comments by President Obama on poverty:

In Tuesday’s discussion with Robert D. Putnam, a Harvard professor, and Arthur C. Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, Mr. Obama said it was important for liberals to accept the importance of character and values in confronting the poverty and violence in some of America’s communities.

“I am a black man who grew up without a father, and I know the costs that I paid for that,” Mr. Obama said. But he blamed Republicans for suggesting that a focus on values means that government does not have to invest in public institutions like early childhood education, job training or public infrastructure that could benefit the poor.

And he chided religious organizations for sometimes focusing too heavily on issues like abortion rather than keeping the pressure on politicians to confront poverty.

While Obama wades into the Conservative call for having a character and values litmus test for the poor, as Charles Blow examines, Obama also confronts the popular and media efforts to demonize the poor as inherently lazy, and thus deserving their poverty:

This week, during a panel discussion on poverty at Georgetown University, President Obama lambasted the media, and in particular Fox News, for creating false, destructive narratives about the poor that paint them broadly as indolent and pathological.

The president said:

“Over the last 40 years, sadly, I think there’s been an effort to either make folks mad at folks at the top, or to be mad at folks at the bottom. And I think the effort to suggest that the poor are sponges, leeches, don’t want to work, are lazy, are undeserving, got traction.”

Ultimately, however, a character and values litmus test for the poor as a condition for addressing poverty proves to be inexcusable in the context of no such litmus test exists for the wealthy; in fact, being wealthy facilitates avoiding the consequences of having low character and flawed values.

The selective and biased demand that the poor have character and values not required of other social classes is paralleled by the political, popular, and media concern about “giving money to the (undeserving) poor“—although there seems little concern about the wealthy giving money (inheritance) to people who haven’t earned that money.

To address the plague of poverty without conditions is an act of high character and values by a people; to demand something of the powerless that we do not demand of the powerful as a condition of addressing inequity is the lowest sort of character and values.

As well, however, we must be willing to confront that the “character and values” mantra of the elite Right (since those on the Right do not embody either but maintain their wealth and power) is code for valuing property over human dignity, and even human life—disturbingly reflected in the discourse from the Right about Baltimore’s uprising.

Privilege and disadvantage driven by racism and classism trump all consequences of character and values in the U.S.

Demanding a character and values litmus test for the poor as a condition for addressing social inequity is a veneer for those who have won the birth lottery but either believe themselves or want others to believe that their lot in life has been earned, is deserved.

It is the mantra of those born on third base who think they hit a triple.

2 comments

  1. David Kaib

    Excellent piece.

    “is code for valuing property over human dignity, and even human life”

    This isn’t quite right. Remember that a key facet of the Drug War is civil forfeiture – which means government can (and does) take property without much process pre-conviction, often property which has a tenuous connection to the alleged crime. Also think of the government’s role in facilitating fraudulent foreclosures. It’s less that property is valued over people than the some people (and therefore their property) are valued over others.

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