In late December, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote that inequality was the “defining challenge of our time.” Returning to his column Friday, the economist fleshed out a popular myth undergirding inequality: the conservative narrative that blames poverty on the poor. Krugman situates the origin of the myth in the 1970s, when the failure of government programs to conquer the problem of poverty was blamed on the broad bracket of ”social disintegration.” The idea of factors like the collapse of the family and rising crime as central to causing poverty — not a symptom of it — insidiously gained ground.
Noting that it has been 50 years since President Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty, Krugman comments, “progressives have stopped apologizing for their efforts on behalf of the poor, and have started trumpeting them instead. And conservatives find themselves on the defensive.” At its crux, Krugman’s argument Friday stresses the importance of a social safety net in reducing poverty, highlighting that antipoverty programs have been significant in aiding the lives of low-income Americans.
Krugman locates the unsolved problem of poverty within the broader question of inequality — a spiraling problem for which the poor cannot be blamed. Krugman notes:
At this point, the rise of the 1 percent at the expense of everyone else is so obvious that it’s no longer possible to shut down any discussion of rising inequality with cries of “class warfare.” Meanwhile, hard times have forced many more Americans to turn to safety-net programs. And as conservatives have responded by defining an ever-growing fraction of the population as morally unworthy “takers” — a quarter, a third, 47 percent, whatever — they have made themselves look callous and meanspirited.