After decades on the sidelines, poverty has worked itself back into the American political conversation. In late July, President Obama availed himself of a campaign-style bus tour (and a 40-minute interview with The New York Times) to focus the public's attention on the minimum wage, college affordability, and economic inequality. A week later, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) chaired a House Budget Committee hearing dubbed "The War on Poverty: A Progress Report." And, with a series of organized, forthright pre-Labor Day strikes, fast-food workers in New York and across the country rephrased a crucial question: How much money does it take, literally, to be able to live?
The response from conservatives — both in the last few weeks and historically — has been consistent: It's not about the availability of money at all.
You heard right. Poverty is not about money; poverty and its symptoms are caused and perpetuated by individuals who lack the personal responsibility, the family structure, and the values to earn money.
Congressman Ryan demonstrated this classic conservative lens when he shined a spotlight on the failures of families and communities in a hearing ostensibly about how best to support them. Mike Huckabee has suggested that poverty's syndrome will ease immediately and finally if parents would just get married; Rush Limbaugh thinks that poor people aren't poor because they don't have money, but because they don't "care, work hard, [or] have ambition"; Newt Gingrich speculates it's that they've got no "habit of work"; Ben Carson and Fox News are sure that "family breakdown" and lack of responsibility are the true culprits. Charles Murray, author of the hugely significant if preposterous book The Bell Curve, has said that "elites" ought to teach the poor better personal habits. That'll solve it.
To me, what's striking (and almost wacky) about this reasoning — that poverty, and the educational, health, and family outcomes of the poor don’t have anything to do with the distribution of money — is that it's coming from free-market conservatives. That is to say, it's coming from conservatives and Republicans who, in all other contexts, take for granted that money and financial motives drive absolutely everything.
The usual ideological assumption on the right, namely, is that all personal decisions (what people buy, which careers they pursue, how they run businesses) are reducible to, explained by, and predictable because of the profit motive and the availability of capital. Don’t raise the minimum wage or tax corporations, because the simple fact of having less cash will negatively affect how those corporations behave. Don't blame corporations and the wealthy for their choices to pollute and exploit labor, because those choices are functions not of "lacking responsibility" but of the reasonable pursuit of money. Don’t regulate the flow of capital, because only if it’s obtainable will we all be creative, entrepreneurial, and everything that’s awesome. In other words, make sure people have money, because that's how to get them to act right.
Yet, when it comes to illiteracy or obesity or teen pregnancy or unemployment or mass incarceration — any time the capitalistic model fails and human lives are in danger or ruined — the role of capital in causing those failures is ignored or even disputed. Those things aren’t about how available money is to whom, they’re about all the ways you’ve personally screwed up.
The facts, though, are these:
Poor people simply aren't poor because they're lazy or because they don't work. According to the Economic Policy Institute, "The severe shortage of living-wage jobs means that many poor adults must work two, three, or four jobs." The institute also notes that the working poor "spend more hours working each week than their wealthier counterparts."
Poor people do (of course) make bad economic decisions that perpetuate their poverty. These include taking exploitative payday loans and cash advances, subsisting on high-interest credit cards, missing work or losing a job because child care is unaffordable, compounding future medical expenses because preventative health care isn't affordable either, choosing to live in neighborhoods with low rent and property taxes and therefore failing schools, working instead of going to school, etc. In every case, the cause is a lack of capital in the present moment.
And capital isn't just the cause of the manifestations of poverty, it's the proven solution. According to the World Bank, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and The Atlantic, direct transfers to the poor (without conditions or stipulations — just transfers of cash) have reduced drug use and teen sexual activity while increasing school attendance in Malawi, Brazil, Mexico, New York, and elsewhere.
I would like it if none of this were true, if money indeed didn’t drive personal, social, educational, and career circumstances in this country. My dream, in fact, is a country where creativity, imagination, grit, and courage are what determine how each of us gets to live.
Unfortunately, it’s the very definition of capitalism that capital or lack of capital drive the relational socioeconomic circumstances of individuals. Conservatives, of all people, should know that best.