Stephen Pimpare wrote in the Washington Post:
In response to a question about his party’s plan to increase the cost of health insurance, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) suggested that people should “invest in their own health care” instead of “getting that new iPhone.” He doubled-down on the point in a later interview: “People need to make a conscious choice, and I believe in self-reliance.” Of course, Chaffetz is wrong. But he isn’t alone.
While he has been met with justifiable derision for the comparison (Christopher Ingraham walked through the math for us, pointing out that a year’s worth of health care would equal 23 iPhone 7 Pluses in price), the claim he is making is hardly new. Chaffetz was articulating a commonly held belief that poverty in the United States is, by and large, the result of laziness, immorality and irresponsibility. If only people made better choices — if they worked harder, stayed in school, got married, didn’t have children they couldn’t afford, spent what money they had more wisely and saved more — then they wouldn’t be poor, or so the reasoning goes.
This insistence that people would not be poor if only they would try harder defines the thinking behind the signature welfare restructuring law of the Clinton era, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. It’s the logic at the heart of efforts to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients, to drug-test people collecting unemployment insurance or to forbid food stamp recipients to buy steak and lobster.
Since the invention of the mythic welfare queen in the 1960s, this has been the story we most reliably tell about why people are poor. Never mind that research from across the social sciences shows us, over and again, that it’s a lie. Never mind low wages or lack of jobs, the poor quality of too many schools, the dearth of marriageable males in poor black communities (thanks to a racialized criminal justice system and ongoing discrimination in the labor market), or the high cost of birth control and day care. Never mind the fact that the largest group of poor people in the United States are children. Never mind the grim reality that most American adults who are poor are not poor from lack of effort but despite it.
This deep denial serves a few functions, however.
First, it’s founded on the assumption that the United States is a land of opportunity, where upward mobility is readily available and hard work gets you ahead. We’ve recently taken to calling it grit. While grit may have ushered you up the socioeconomic ladder in the late 19th century, it’s no longer up to the task today. Rates of intergenerational income mobility are, in fact, higher in France, Spain, Germany, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and other countries in the world than they are here in the United States. And that mobility is in further decline here, an indicator of the falling fortunes not just of poor and low-income Americans, but of middle-class ones, too.
To accept this as reality is to confront the unpleasant fact that myths of American exceptionalism are just that — myths — and many of us would fare better economically (and live longer, healthier lives, too) had we been born elsewhere. That cognitive dissonance is too much for too many of us, so we believe instead that people can overcome any obstacle if they would simply work hard enough.
Second, to believe that poverty is a result of immorality or irresponsibility helps people believe it can’t happen to them. But it can happen to them (and to me and to you). Poverty in the United States is common, and according to the Census Bureau, over a three-year period, about one-third of all U.S. residents slip below the poverty line at least once for two months or more.
Third — and conveniently, perhaps, for people like Chaffetz or House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) — this stubborn insistence that people could have more money or more health care if only they wanted them more absolves the government of having to intervene and use its power on their behalf. In this way of thinking, reducing access to subsidized health insurance isn’t cruel, it’s responsible, a form of tough love in which people are forced to make good choices instead of bad ones. This is both patronizing and, of course, a gross misreading of the actual outcome of laws like these.
There’s one final problem with these kinds of arguments, and that is the implication that we should be worried by the possibility of poor people buying the occasional steak, lottery ticket or, yes, even an iPhone. Set aside the fact that a better cut of meat may be more nutritious than a meal Chaffetz would approve of, or the fact that a smartphone may be your only access to email, job notices, benefit applications, school work and so on. Why do we begrudge people struggling to get by the occasional indulgence? Why do we so little value pleasure and joy? Why do we insist that if you are poor, you should also be miserable? Why do we require penitence?
Just because what Chaffetz is saying isn’t novel doesn’t mean it isn’t uninformed and dangerous. Chaffetz, Ryan and their compatriots offer us tough love without the love, made possible through their willful ignorance of (or utter disregard for) what life is actually like for so many Americans who do their very best against great odds and still, nonetheless, have little to show for it. Sometimes not even an iPhone.
This frame for poverty and its causes is the mainstay of the media followed by conservatives and echoed in Hillbilly Elegy by Vance. Vance, by his own intelligence and the assistance of his grandmother, was able to graduate from Ohio State in what I calculate to be two and one-half years, go to law school at Yale, and secure a job at a capital venture firm in California. He and his wife, also a lawyer, do well because of what Pimpare calls “grit,” which is also the term used by Fox News Channel personality and cohost of the highly-rated show The Five and his own weekend program Eric Bolling in Wake Up America: The Nine Virtues That Made Our Nation Great—And Why We Need Them More Than Ever.
As Pimpare notes, social science research shows that poverty is not a personal problem; it is a social problem, caused by conditions that too many Americans, especially ethnic minorities, face in America today. Despite these studies, there are courses to eliminate poverty, such as those created and promoted by Ruby Payne, author of A Framework for Understanding Poverty. Payne also lectures and conducts training sessions for teachers and others interested in poverty, its causes and remedy. Unfortunately, according to this study, her truth claims bear no truth and are not substantiated by research. But that does not prohibit her from benefiting from sales of her book or speaking fees. Furthermore, her view of poverty and the poor is perpetuated by the conservative media. As the article that tested her theory notes:
Nowhere in her book does Payne state that poverty, rather than the poor, is the problem that must be addressed. She offers no perspective that people should hold elected officials accountable for the number of families in poverty, or the conditions in which people must live when their incomes are low. Although the fourth edition was published almost a decade after welfare reform, A Framework for Understanding Poverty makes no reference to the elimination of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). She does not connect the misfortunes of the poor to the fortunes of the middle class and wealthy by examining policies regarding housing, segregation, taxation, or public expenditures. She does not analyze the degree to which wealthy and middle-class families proactively structure advantage for their children at the expense of the children of the less fortunate (Biddle, 2001; Brantlinger, 2003; Cookson,1994). At no time does she suggest that the hundreds of thousands of educators she addresses might attempt to advocate for the basic needs of the children they teach. Poor children do not only have trouble in school; they are likely to live in substandard housing, eat an inadequate diet, wear threadbare clothes, lack health insurance, and have chronic health and dental problems. Though we know many teachers of poor children who regularly feed their students with their own money, one will not find such priorities in Ruby Payne’s work. We believe that to discuss poverty among caring people obligates one to challenge others to do something about poverty itself—to give, to volunteer, to speak out, to hold politicians accountable—in short, to change a system that perpetuates poverty.
Furthermore, nowhere in Payne’s work is there a suggestion that students might be taught to think about social class and poverty. There is no hint that people ought to be taught to question the structures that oppress them and others like them systematically (Freire, 1970). We would suggest that a curriculum that addresses class as a significant conceptual lens through which to view people’s lives, their society, and the texts they read is essential to the responsible education of all people in a social world divided by class, and it might be especially motivating and liberating to those oppressed by such a system (Bomer & Bomer, 2001; Edelsky, 1999; Fecho & Allen, 2003; Finn, 1999; Hicks, 2002; Macedo, 1994; McLaren, 1989; Shor & Pari, 1999; Swenson, 2003; Yagelski, 2000).
We would also suggest that an ethical education system does not teach students to think of anything that makes one secure in the middle class as an unquestioned good. Transforming one’s character in order to climb a social ladder should not be necessary and is not a noble thing to do. Other values are available than simply conforming to the middle class. In fact, it has been demonstrated repeatedly that when people without advantage, social position, or opportunity internalize US middle-class values, those very values cause significantly more damage in their lives than they offer new opportunity (Bourgois, 1995; Foley, 1994; Liebow, 1967/2003; Mahler, 1995; Newman, 2000), partly because by internalizing the views of those who are financially better-off, poor individuals come to blame themselves for their failure to get ahead.
This lack of attention to a critical perspective is consonant with Payne’s individualistic, deficit, blame-the-victim perspective. Such a perspective aligns well with right-wing social policy. If the poor are poor simply because they do not know how to behave as if they were not poor, then the middle class and the wealthy should not be taxed to provide public assistance, public health, public schooling, or a public sphere in which the poor might participate. According to such a perspective, neither structural inequality, nor public policy, nor barriers to good jobs, nor lack of money cause the plight of the poor; they just don’t have the right story structure, or tone of voice, or register, or cognitive strategies.
As we said at the beginning of this article, Ruby Payne’s success with her program on poverty is impressive. Her book is self-published; she earns the royalty as well as the publisher’s margin; her only expense is having it printed. If in fact over 800,000 copies have been sold between the 1998and 2005 editions, as the most recent cover claims, that single book has probably made many millions of dollars. The success of the book and the business to which it is attached is not attributable to entrepreneurship alone. The appeal of the book relies on a set of values—a framework—that exists outside of education, and is pervasive throughout middle-class US society. Policy that constructs poverty as a problem of schools creates a large industry that consists of many more businesses than just Payne’s. Her success indicts all of us in education, indeed most of the American public, as it reveals the degree to which we use the education system to protect our own sense of entitlement to privilege.
It’s time to admit that poverty is a social problem, that we are a society that includes all of us, and that we have a duty and obligation to help those who have the least to more fully participate in the benefits of our economic condition. It’s time for a renewal of the War on Poverty.