WCP: Fighting Poverty with Classism

Speaker stands at a podium in front of a seated crowd.

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Reform movements in the US have a long history of trying to address poverty by teaching, manipulating, and sometimes forcing working-class people to behave more like the middle class. In Working-Class Perspectives (new window) this week, Sherry Linkon considers the contemporary version, which values work and family but distrusts poor people and reinforces inequality.

I spent part of last week at the Chautauqua Institution, which a friend described as “summer camp for adults.” Its lovely Victorian summer homes, pricey food options, and demographics – skewing older and extremely white – make it feel like a retreat for the educated elite, but its history is not quite so rarefied. As the dozens of houses operated by Protestant denominations indicate, Chautauqua was originally created as a summer gathering place for ministers and Sunday school teachers, high-minded people who might not have been able to afford other vacation options.  A few years after it opened, Chautauqua began to offer one of the first distance-learning programs in the US, a college degree by correspondence, aimed at people “who could not afford the time or money to attend college the opportunity of acquiring the skills and essential knowledge of a college education.” The aim was to “show people how best to use their leisure time and avoid the growing availability of idle pastimes, such as drinking, gambling, dancing and theater-going, that posed a threat both to good morals and to good health.”

That history made Chautauqua the ideal place to hear a talk on poverty by Robert Doar, President of the American Enterprise Institute. While AEI describes itself as committed to “vigorous debate,” not affiliated with any political party, and not taking institutional positions, Doar’s talk made his individual partisanship clear with a number of snarky references to Democratic leaders and leftist analysts. AEI says that its “scholars’ conclusions are fueled by rigorous, data-driven research and broad-ranging evidence.” Doar did provide some thought-provoking data, and much of he said deserves serious engagement. But his argument about poverty reflects some of the same classist attitudes embedded in Chautauqua’s vision of the value of education over “idle pastimes.”

In both, we hear a view of reform that begins with the assumption that middle-class culture is superior and that poor peoples’ problems stem from lack of morals and self-control, not lack of resources or power. This view has a long history, and it has taken many forms. Campaigns against prostitution, the temperance movement, and settlement houses, for example, all focused on persuading and sometimes forcing poor and working-class people to adhere to middle-class ways. Such approaches see poor and working-class people as the problem, not structural inequities, a point Doar made both by defining inequality and poverty as entirely separate concerns and by insisting that poverty was not related to race, even though poverty rates for Black and Latinx people remain more than double the rate for white people.

The assumption that poverty is caused by poor behavior plays out in some of the anti-poverty strategies that Doar advocates, such as policies that require people to work in order to receive benefits or use economic consequences to push for two-parent households. While these programs aim to control how people live, they also reflect some values that are central to working-class culture, which places a high value on work and family. Along with noting the dangers and exploitation of labor, working-class studies scholars have also shown that work can build important connections with others and foster pride – in what work produces but also simply for showing up day after day to support a family. Doar acknowledges all of this, to his credit.

But he couldn’t resist warning about the dangers of “idle pastimes.” Doar cited a study showing that unemployed men spend more hours in front of screens than most other people, “inactivity” that “has negative consequences for these men and negative consequences for our society.” Unemployment men spend about 2100 hours a year on screens, though another study showed that most office workers spend 1700 hours in front of a computer just while at work. It’s hard to believe office workers don’t spent at least another 4000 hours a year online after work hours. But hours reviewing reports or writing emails or teaching classes is virtuous, while time scrolling social media is bad. Doar may well be right, as the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories in recent years shows, though most evidence suggests that the people who’ve been most susceptible to those are not living in poverty. Studies of QAnon supporters, for example, suggest that they rely more on social media for new but are also are more religious than most Americans, and they tend to be more financially well-off, and multiple reports have noted that many of those who stormed the Capitol on January 6 were well-off. 

For Doar, the answer to poverty is a combination of work and government funding. When asked about whether this model didn’t simply subsidize business, Doar argued that filling in the gap with various forms of aid was a better solution that higher wages. Aid programs, he explained, require people to register with government agencies, which provide opportunities for intervention, such as counseling. Doar ignores the possibility that needing assistance even while working might undermine the power of work to generate pride. His argument against a living wage? It’s just something leftists want because they take pleasure from “sticking it to business.”

It’s ironic that someone who so clearly espouses Republican positions would take this stance, since it defines government as the answer and intrudes on people’s lives. Republicans have worked hard in recent decades to undermine the very idea that government could ever work well, and they’ve been especially passionate in the past two years about defending individual liberty. Just not when it comes to the poor and working class, apparently.

Doar also called for more attention to the struggles of the middle class, but he did not acknowledge that much of the “government aid” he celebrates comes out of middle-class pockets, through taxes. In fact, he called for a regressive national sales tax, which would ask even more of those in the middle, and dismissed proposals to increase taxes on corporations or the wealthy. Instead, he repeated his claim that any such policies simply reflect Democratic hatred of business. But raising wages and taxing the rich aren’t about punishing business or the wealthy. They’re about reducing the burden on those in the middle while also balancing out growing inequality – a problem that Doar dismissed as unimportant. Indeed, at no point in his talk did he even acknowledge the spike in income for the wealthiest Americans.

Doar closed with a call for bipartisanship that included bashing the Democrats for passing bills with their thin majority. “Whatever it is the Senate Democrats say they want to do” in their budget, he added, it’s “probably not good.” He was especially critical of Democratic policies that give families money without strings, policies that have proven successful and not undermined people’s willingness to work or their morality in many countries. The problem with those policies, I guess, is that they trust people, value the family, preserve individual liberty, and promote a sense of equality.

Among the most interesting things about hearing all of this at Chautauqua was the audience response. Many people applauded Doar’s call for work requirements, though questions about wages and corporate profits drew even stronger cheers. These responses and the setting remind us that people of privilege may not agree about how best to address economic injustice, too often, we base our strategies on our own assumed virtues. That’s not something only the middle class does, of course. Working-class people sometimes think their culture is superior, too – more genuine, more inclusive, more determined. But there’s a difference. While I bristle at the paternalism of approaches that aim to “fix” poor people, the real problem is that the elite have the power to turn their biases into policy.

Sherry Linkon, Georgetown University