During each of this century’s first six years, nearly a million more Americans, on average, sunk into poverty. Almost one in 10 of us is expected to rely on food stamps this year; in New York City, make that one in seven. Today, more Americans are poor than make up Canada’s entire population.
It would be hard to argue that our society lacks the material resources to end poverty. So, given the staggering, top-to-bottom failures of the Bush doctrine and the very real possibility of a new spirit in Washington, is it possible to seize this historic moment to end the scourge of poverty?
I believe we can, but only if we come to grips with the real obstacle. It’s not, nor has it ever been, a particular president (not Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush) or a particular policy (not anti-union rulings or the gutting of support for affordable housing). The real obstacles are our ideas—beliefs about poverty that rob citizens of power to follow our common sense, our own interests, and our innate need for fairness. For three decades, the “drip, drip, drip” of false and dangerous ideas has stunted our sense of the possible. These five are especially deadly:
Myth #1. We don’t know how to end poverty.
Of course we know how. Against those who saw “economic laws as sacred,” Franklin Roosevelt argued that “economic laws are not made by nature. They are made by human beings.” So in 1944, Roosevelt called for an Economic Bill of Rights, building on a slew of New Deal breakthroughs, from Social Security to the National Labor Relations Act, that made possible a huge leap toward the end of poverty. From the 1940s to the ’70s, the real household income of the poorest fifth of Americans more than doubled, advancing faster than any other quintile.
And recall what the naysayers said about the 1960s? They’ve cited its “war on poverty” as proof of government ineptitude. But the truth is, from the late ’50s to the early ’70s, Americans cut the poverty rate in half—from over 22 percent to about 11 percent.
Myth #2. Ending poverty would cost too much.
Nope. The real cost is poverty itself. Accountable government, establishing fair standards and rules, actually reduces the need for “big” government to clean up after the damage of poverty and environmental devastation is done. The real cost comes from our government not acting.
Set aside, if you can, the incalculable human suffering of poverty and the loss to society from human gifts that poverty leaves undeveloped. Consider some of what we can tally up: So many American children, almost one in five, grow up poor that poverty’s annual costs to our society—just counting crime, lost economic output, and higher health expenditures—now total almost $500 billion. We spend enough on incarceration to buy a Harvard education for each of the 2 million (mostly poor) people we’ve locked up.
A 2007 in-depth examination of poverty and its cures concluded that it would take about $90 billion a year for 10 years to cut U.S. poverty in half. Simply re-establishing the pre-Bush tax rates for households earning over $200,000 would more than cover it.
Myth #3. Ending poverty would require big, intrusive government.
“Government is not the solution to our problem,” Ronald Reagan famously warned in his first inaugural address, “government is the problem.” Citizens have been made to fear that going for what they desire and know is right—ending poverty—would unleash the big, bad state. So they pull back.
The maddening irony is that those who scare us with fear of Big Brother-type government are too often the same people turning governing over to private interests—and thus making it scary. Ending poverty depends on our seeing through this mind-twist. It depends on citizens shaping a government they can trust as their tool: as a fair-rules setter and enforcer.
Creating such accountable government starts with exposing the misleading big-vs.-small government frame and recognizing that what really matters is whether government is accountable to citizens. Accountable government that sets and upholds fair standards and rules would actually reduce the need for “big” government to deal with the fallout from an unaccountable market. Today’s utterly avoidable, disastrous housing collapse is one big case in point.
Neither would it enlarge government to restore tax rates aligned with the fairness principle of ability to pay. Adam Smith, whom some see as the godfather of greed, wrote, “The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities.” Yet, in at least one recent year, 82 top U.S. corporations paid zero taxes. And since 1970, average tax rates on the wealthiest one-half of 1 percent of Americans have been cut. Tax rates on dividends and capital gains, which are most relevant to the wealthy, have been made lower than the rate most middle-class families pay on earned income.
Doing what it takes to uproot poverty might start with making sure our minimum wage at least keeps pace with inflation. If it had done this for the last 40 years, the $6.55 minimum wage that took effect this July would have been almost 50 percent higher. In the same way, other anti-poverty steps—enforcing anti-monopoly laws, protecting employees’ right to organize, creating job opportunities, assuring universal health care, guaranteeing quality care for poor children—would not require big government, only effective government.
Myth #4. Society has to choose between equity and economic success; we can’t have both.
Evidence screams, not so. Among the world’s top 10 most economically competitive countries as ranked by the World Economic Forum, five are also among the world’s top fifth of societies judged as having the narrowest gap between rich and poor.
This finding makes perfect sense, with just a moment’s reflection. The economic costs of poverty—work lost because of illness and poor education, for example—help to explain why more equal societies, in general, perform better economically. And many new jobs dispersing wealth would at the same time spur our economy for decades to come; for example, we could train up millions of unskilled workers for “green collar” work to move our economy to renewable energy sources.
Myth #5. Ending poverty would require equality, which is unnatural.
This myth claims that it’s mainly those naive about human nature—liberals!—who believe we could and should eliminate poverty.
In fact, Americans across the political landscape view poverty as a failing we should act on. Yet the long-held belief behind this myth runs deep. It goes like this: Humans are innately selfish and therefore power-hungry—we’ve got to make sure we “get ours,” and the inevitable result is hierarchical social relationships. Therefore, ending poverty by reducing inequality would run counter to our hard-wired human tendencies to create social pecking orders. This belief gets reinforced through the frequently misinterpreted Matthew 26:11: “You always have the poor with you.”
But anthropologists now tell us that during at least 90 percent of homo sapiens’ existence, we’ve lived in egalitarian social structures. “There is no dominance hierarchy among hunter-gatherers. No individual has priority of access to food,” write David Erdal and Andrew Whiten in Modeling the Early Human Mind.
In contrast, the extreme wealth-and-power hierarchies we inhabit today violate our deeply ingrained need for human relationships of mutuality and cooperation. And that violation makes us sick—literally. Research finds that, within industrial countries, life spans are as much as 15 years shorter for those at the bottom of the social pyramid compared to those at the top.
What will it take to break free? I hear friends moan, “Oh my God, with the middle class shrinking and only the rich advancing, where is our country headed?” But we don’t have to wonder. All we need to do is look to societies around the world where horrifying destitution lives next to walled luxury, where poor and rich alike live in fear.
That’s where our current path is taking us. We’ve woven a cultural trance of false ideas about society and false ideas about ourselves. But as a new administration approaches and the colossal cost of our mythology becomes painfully evident, the time to break the trance is now.
We can spread the liberating word: Ending poverty in America doesn’t require that we change human nature. We don’t all have to become more generous and selfless people. But we do have to become empowered people, able to break free from a belief system that denies our deep need for fairness and efficacy, our hard-wired empathy, and our widely dispersed, experience-based common sense about what works. Breaking free of defeating beliefs is what will start the end of poverty in America. Let us seize the moment.
Frances Moore Lappé, cofounder with Anna Lappé of the Small Planet Institute (www.smallplanet.org), is the author of 16 books including, most recently, Getting a Grip: Clarity, Creativity, and Courage in a World Gone Mad.