Defining poverty down—or is it up?

In a new NYT column, conservative pundit Ross Douthat wants to know several things about unemployment. First, it’s not really unemployment “in the usual sense, where people look for work and can’t find it. It’s a kind of post-employment, in which people drop out of the work force and find ways to live, more or less permanently, without a steady job.”
Second, their poverty isn’t really that big a deal because they’re not really poor. They’re managing to get by “receiving disability payments and food stamps, living with relatives, cobbling together work here and there, and often doing as well as they might with a low-wage job. By historical standards their lives are more comfortable than the left often allows.” And that this is part of a “broader turn away from community in America — from family breakdown and declining churchgoing to the retreat into the virtual forms of sport and sex and friendship.”
The general impression is that the real issue is lazy poor people are choosing to drop out rather than work (to his credit, he does admit that stocking shelves at Wal-Mart isn’t anything to aspire too), like the selfish people they are (see umpty-zillion David Brooks columns). And that they’re not really that badly off. So there’s no need to think about the income gap, the way Wall Street crashed the economy, or the long history of sending blue collar jobs overseas.
There’s also the implication that if unemployed people aren’t actually starving on the street, and welfare pays for their food, hey, they’re not really poor! After all, it’s not like they were kulaks in Tsarist Russia or anything. Of course it’s not like the days when blue-collar workers could buy a house on a 40-hour-a-week job, but I’m sure Douthat would rather we don’t think about that either.
This is what I mean by redefining poverty: As long as you can avoid starvation, the system works right? So pundit Ruth Marcus likewise argues that if we cut Social Security benefits, everyone will make do with less, ergo no problem.
As noted at the link, the past decade or two have seen the reverse treatment of riches: If you can’t buy everything you possibly want, or if putting your children into the country’s top college strains your budget so you can’t buy a yacht too, then you’re not rich.
So in this Bizarro right-wing view, the poor are doing great, but the rich are suffering.
I disagree.


Filed under economics, Politics

4 responses to “Defining poverty down—or is it up?

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