“Rich families are all alike; every poor family is poor in its own way.”
Writers on poverty in America might want to inscribe this over their computers. Even those who, like David Brooks, who announced in a New York Times column today that's shockingly lazy and underthought even by modern-day Brooksian standards, that he's anxiously awaiting “a thinker who can describe poverty through the lens of social psychology.” For that’s not going to help.
("Lately it seems as though every few months there’s another urban riot and the nation turns its attention to urban poverty," is Brooks' breezy, weary lead, before gassing on for, what, at least the 20 minutes it must have taken him to finish a first draft.)
Poverty is not something that can be “formulated, sprawling on a pin.” No, for it is not a thing, not something amenable to description. It is a condition spawned by history, nurtured by greed and taught by perceptions of limited possibility. Its causes are myriad; it is a dynamic.
The excuses for inaction on poverty are also myriad. Brooks says “the real barriers to mobility are matters of social psychology, the quality of relationships in a home and a neighborhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition.” Poverty, in other words, is the fault of the poor. “They” have to take care of it themselves. “We” can wash our hands of it.
It’s worse: Brooks also summarily dismisses a Jon Stewart call to spend at least a small percentage of the money dumped into Afghanistan on Baltimore, where the problems of urban poverty have been so apparent recently. “It’s not really relevant,” Brooks says. “The problem is not lack of attention, and it’s not mainly lack of money.” And that, of course, is nothing more (we see as we read on) than the preface to an another excuse to ignore poverty and suppress the poor.
On the same New York Times op-ed page where Brooks’ piece appears, and on the same day, Johns Hopkins professor N. D. B. Connolly writes that the “problem is not black culture. It is policy and politics.” He provides a swift rebuke to Brooks: “By avoiding the language of individual failings and degenerate culture, political leaders, black and otherwise, can help us all see the daily violence of poverty.” What Brooks is writing, he implies, is not useful. Quite the contrary. The culture of poverty is not a culture at all—or even, as Brooks would have us believe, a lack of it. A generalized solution to poverty is never going to be found through focus on either individuals, whose differences defy categorization, or on the idea of a culture of poverty that, quite frankly doesn’t exist.
Yet there are generalized things that can be done that will alleviate poverty. One is to address the “prison industrial complex” that makes it almost impossible for anyone to escape, once caught in its maw. Punishment, right now, is profitable. We can change that. Another is to make meaningful and sustainable jobs available in areas of poverty. Fordham professor and activist Mark Naison posted today on Facebook a plea for a contemporary Civilian Conservation Corp “bringing jobs and hope to the forgotten young people of our cities, and now to suburbs like Ferguson, Missouri, where the poor are increasingly concentrated.” A third is to provide meaningful education that does not discard the “failures” (no matter how those might be determined) but that stays with each and every student to the point where they can take control of their own lives.
None of these requires a description of poverty, though none is a solution in itself, either. Each is a pathway, and each should be one of many allowing individuals to move out of poverty. Connolly argues, quite rightly, that African-American poverty descends from racism and capitalism; Brooks implies that these are irrelevant, that it is the culture of the family that matters. The fact remains, though, that poverty extends far beyond African-Americans in the United States—and that the “culture” of the family matters not a whit when prison and lack of jobs and possibilities stare one in the face. Brooks himself would “smash and grab” were the situation dire enough, his family’s need great enough. The goal should be to make that unnecessary for everyone, not simply the relatively wealthy.
These three things are not particularly difficult. If we want to end poverty, we can end our over-reliance on prisons and can incorporate into them means for stopping recidivism. Offering education for the incarcerated and removing the roadblocks in place today that stop those now out of jail from getting jobs—these would go a long way toward getting many Americans out of the prison cycle. Developing a new CCC that would provide jobs and shore up the crumbling infrastructure of the United States would benefit all of us. Relying on teachers rather than on tests would allow us to remove the fear of failure hanging over our schools today and would re-energize our educational institutions, taking away the stigma of “failing schools” and replacing it with a sense of communal growth.
For any of this to succeed, unfortunately, it all has to be removed from “profit.” As Connolly says, money is being made from poverty. We see that in the “prison industrial complex,” in the punitive low wages those in poverty can expect (so low that government has to enhance them—increasing, of course, corporate profit) and in the move to “privatize” education and make it more and more reliant on high-stakes testing, itself a growing profit center.
Until we, as the real and broader American culture, decide that there are areas where “profit” should not intrude, poverty is going to continue. It is not repairing “invisible bonds of relationships,” as Brooks claims, that will stop lives from being “nasty, brutish, solitary and short” but providing avenues to success that do not rely on another’s profit. For, if they do, those avenues will quickly be squeezed into non-existence in the name of that profit—as we have seen over and over again.
Until poverty stops being a profit center, poverty will continue. Blaming “culture” for poverty won’t change that fact.