Transpartisan Note #72
by A. Lawrence Chickering and James S. Turner
Long ago—decades, in fact—the subject of the very poor played a prominent role in our intellectual and political debate. It was in the late sixties and early seventies, when the government first started measuring economic poverty. The objective was to reduce the numbers who were poor.
Now, fifty years later, despite massive money spent, it is hard to see very much accomplished.
The same is true of other forms of social dysfunction—alcoholism, drug addiction, domestic violence and so on. Billions spent; little to show for it. Worse than that, it is hard to find evidence that anyone effectively cares. There is only the eerie sense that all anyone can think about is that we keep spending the money, maintaining the theater of caring.
The subject here is the most difficult population: people at the economic bottom in a society that values monetary achievement—the demoralized poor, people without hope. Forty years ago books like Tally’s Corner and The Children of Sanchez recorded their struggles.
J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is perhaps the best example today. Very much worth the read. Among current political leaders only Bernie Sanders has raised the issue, but in a form that fails to effectively address it. As hard as he tries his campaign about economic inequality and against the ‘one percent’ seems more like artifacts of the old left’s mainstream playbook than a serious attempt to bring new insights and new tools to bear on the issue.
Progressives want to increase taxes on the rich to slightly reduce inequality. Conservatives want to cut corporate taxes and on the rich to slightly increase opportunity and growth. So they fight. Neither has a program for—or any practical interest in— the really poor. Or how addressing the really poor addresses all our social assumptions.
These traditional left/right positions all focus on objective issues, which touch people only as objective victims. The reality here, and in most of our pressing issues, concerns people as subjects. How might a serious debate arise about how, in addition to more money, to ease, if not eliminate, the pain of people who are at the economic bottom in a society that, above all, values financial achievement and success as ours does? How can we reimage the drive to ‘get ahead’ and be ‘winners’ so that it does not force others to be ‘losers’ and live in shame?
Both left and right avoid serious answers on the subjective plight of the demoralized poor. Are there Transpartisan approaches that deserve attention for people who really do care about the issue?
There is a better question. There are many ‘extraordinary’ programs serving the most difficult populations that are producing powerful results. We have often written about them. What works is out there. The better question is why people in power, both left and right, show little ability to learn from these existing programs?
In our lead article in TTR (Vol I, No. 2 p. 26) we mentioned five programs addressing the plight of the poor, working on different issues in all global regions. One key to the success of these programs is personal engagement among people empowered by shared ownership of public spaces.
How can governments far from people help promote the personal, even intimate, contact and connections that are crucial to relieve the pain felt by people who live in the misery born from isolation? How can a political system obsessed by how money is spent shed light on this tragedy? When will our leaders start to learn from the experiences of others that have found newer means?
Across the country and around the world people working together outside partisan divides point the way.
(Photo: Homeless by Matthew Woitunski CC BY 3.0)