Monday, February 21, 2005


The book "One Nation, Underprivileged" by Mark Robert Rank continues to provide really great insight into not only why poverty exists in America, but also how to help establish a new paradigm for thinking about poverty. The book challenges the received wisdom that one hears--well, I'm trying to think of a specific place or places one hears this "wisdom"--one just hears it in the air. It's everywhere, this idea that "there is opportunity for all" and anyone in America can go "from rags to riches," and so forth. Of course, such thinking is predominantly heard from the right side of the political spectrum. But here's a good excerpt that challenges such assumptions:

Poverty exists primarily because there is a shortage of viable economic opportunities and social supports for the entire population. Given this shortage, a certain percentage of the population is ensured of experiencing poverty [p. 179].

He explains that the American labor market is like a game of musical chairs in which there are perpetually ten players (jobseekers) but only eight chairs (jobs). In other words, our so-called "free market economy" with all its globalization, privatization, and outsourcing, is designed to produce losers. Therefore, when a person can't find a job (by this we of course mean a job capable of supporting the person and the person's family, regardless of size), that does not necessarily mean that that person therefore has brought poverty on himself. Remember, our great system is designed to produce losers.

Survival of the fittest

Most rightwingers will point out that hey, that's life--some people win, some people lose. Are you suggesting that the government should make everybody equal? But when the layers of rhetoric and ideology are pulled back, one can see clearly that what some call survival of "the fittest"--i.e., the ability of those who manage to acquire lots of wealth (which rightwingers would say is due to their keen business sense, their discipline and love of Christ) is actually the result of government policies that favor the haves over the have-nots. For example, Rank points out that, according to a 2003 IRS document, "the 400 wealthiest taxpayers earned over 1 percent of all income in 2000, doubling their share since 1992, while at the same time paying a smaller percentage of their income in taxes [p. 160]." (For those who would like to verify, go here to the publication Rank refers to and look at column 56 "average tax rate" and then go here to look at p. 14 and compare percentages).

Rank also points out that "the average income of a top CEO in this country has gone from 39 times the average worker's salary in 1970 to more than 1,000 times what the average worker earns [in the present] [p. 161]." Oh but the average worker salary has also gone up--from $32, 522 in 1970 to $35, 864 in the present. And there are other signs that the well-off receive more favors than their less fortunate fellow citizens--as Rank puts it, "Exorbitant stock options and bailouts appear almost routine within the upper echelons of American business [p. 161]."


I haven't yet read over Rank's proposed solutions. To be sure, he does offer them. But I'm still amazed at his accurate description of the problems. Or, more precisely, I'm amazed that even though any adult in the job market has experienced or knows someone who has experienced the problems Rank is pointing out, a majority and then some cling to the pleasing myths of fair opportunity for all in America--you know, America, where any bum can strike it rich. As Rank says:

"Ultimately, the old paradigm reflects and reinforces the myths and ideals of American society--that there economic opportunities for all, that individualism and self-reliance are paramount, and that hard work is rewarded. Although poverty may be regrettable, it would be a mistake to call it unfair. It should not be surprising that the dominant paradigm of poverty is a reflection of the overall dominant ideology of America [p. 175]."

Rank then goes on to state the obvious about a step toward developing a new paradigm which will allow real, substantive changes in approaches to eradicating poverty. He says:

"A new paradigm must be built not upon the myths of America but upon its realities. It should reflect a fuller appreciation of the meaning of poverty, rather than the one-dimensional view to which we are too often exposed [i.e., in the rightwing rantings of Limbaugh and O'Reilly]. It must ultimately stimulate a fundamental shift in how we conceptualize and act toward the problem of poverty [p.176]."

Reality, Morality, and Morass

Indeed, Rank's words apply to more situations than just the attempt to cure poverty. From foreign policy to Social Security to everything in between, America's great debate has been seized and perverted and cheapened by the right wing talk radio commandos. On The Majority Report tonight, I heard at least 3 or 4 people call in to say that they were changing their party affiliation from Republican to Democrat. One caller from Colorado attributed at least part of the change in his thinking to the fact that until Air America came along, there was only right wing ideas available on the airwaves where he lived. So in less than a year, Air America has been able to open some people's minds and begin to correct and counter some of the vicious untruths and half-truths the right has been pumping out with no let up since the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987.

So the tide is slowly, ever so slowly turning left...and that is a good thing for America.

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