Tides, Boats, Middle Class

Paul Krugman sounds the alarm against poverty, in a column that should resonate as loudly as Michael Harrington’s The Other America did more than 45 years ago. In “Poverty Is Poison,” Krugman points to an article in Saturday’s Financial Times, summarizing research presented last week at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which explain:

…neuroscientists have found that “many children growing up in very poor families with low social status experience unhealthy levels of stress hormones, which impair their neural development.” The effect is to impair language development and memory — and hence the ability to escape poverty — for the rest of the child’s life.

…Living in or near poverty has always been a form of exile, of being cut off from the larger society. But the distance between the poor and the rest of us is much greater than it was 40 years ago, because most American incomes have risen in real terms while the official poverty line has not. To be poor in America today, even more than in the past, is to be an outcast in your own country. And that, the neuroscientists tell us, is what poisons a child’s brain.

America’s failure to make progress in reducing poverty, especially among children, should provoke a lot of soul-searching. Unfortunately, what it often seems to provoke instead is great creativity in making excuses.

Some of these excuses take the form of assertions that America’s poor really aren’t all that poor — a claim that always has me wondering whether those making it watched any TV during Hurricane Katrina, or for that matter have ever looked around them while visiting a major American city.

Mainly, however, excuses for poverty involve the assertion that the United States is a land of opportunity, a place where people can start out poor, work hard and become rich.

But the fact of the matter is that Horatio Alger stories are rare, and stories of people trapped by their parents’ poverty are all too common. According to one recent estimate, American children born to parents in the bottom fourth of the income distribution have almost a 50 percent chance of staying there — and almost a two-thirds chance of remaining stuck if they’re black.

That, to me, is the crux of the matter.

If enough people believe a myth, society will organize around that myth, whether that myth is that witches cast spells or that the poor are responsible for their own fate. If enough Americans let themselves be bamboozled by the Horatio Alder myth, they will support the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer because hey — the rich could be me someday. Thus it is difficult for antipoverty platforms to gain political traction:

At the moment it’s hard to imagine anything comparable [to progress in the UK] happening in this country. To their credit — and to the credit of John Edwards, who goaded them into it — both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are proposing new initiatives against poverty. But their proposals are modest in scope and far from central to their campaigns.

I’m not blaming them for that; if a progressive wins this election, it will be by promising to ease the anxiety of the middle class rather than aiding the poor. And for a variety of reasons, health care, not poverty, should be the first priority of a Democratic administration.

My own “yes, and” response is that health care and poverty are not unrelated. John F. Kennedy said in 1962, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” Everything depends upon whether that tide is a Keynesian tide or a supply-side tide. The tide Kennedy had in mind — cutting taxes to increase productivity — had with it a set of economic policies to ensure fairness and economic redistribution where needed. Brahmins from Wall Street to Henry Luce couldn’t say enough nasty things about JFK and his economic ideas.

We have been living through a long Reagan-Bush supply-side tide, one that has swamped everyone but the rich. Universal health care is a torpedo in the supply-side ship, and the supply-siders know it. Why else would they whine about “socialized medicine,” unless myth, not reality, were driving their agenda? Only when supply-side myths sink with their pirate ship can this nation include poverty in its agenda.

What those of us in the middle class need to rethink is with whom our fortunes rise or fall, the rich or the poor? Twenty-seven years of Reaganomics should have answered that for us by now.

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