“The idea that poverty is a problem of persons—that it results from personal moral, cultural, or biological inadequacies—has dominated discussions of poverty for well over two hundred years and given us the enduring idea of the undeserving poor.”
—Michael Katz, The Undeserving Poor
In a recent op-ed, New York Times columnist David Brooks called for a “moral revival,” one which requires “holding people responsible” so that we have “social repair.”
To illustrate the need for said revival—which he frames as a reassertion of social norms—Brooks offers what he describes as three “representative figures” of “high school-educated America”: a man whose mother was absent, Dad is in prison, attended seven elementary schools, and “ended up under house arrest”; a girl who was “one of five half-siblings from three relationships,” whose mom lost custody of the kids to an abuser, and whose dad left a woman because another guy had fathered their child; and, finally, a kid who “burned down a lady’s house when he was 13” and says, “I just love beating up somebody and making they nose bleed…and beating them to the ground.”
So goes the latest iteration of the “undeserving poor,” an age-old concept brilliantly excavated by the late historian Michael Katz in his book of the same title. Like the long lineage it stems from, Brooks’ rendition is as “representative” of people with low-incomes as corrupt corporate titans are of small entrepreneurs. Anecdotally, in my years working for Boys and Girls Clubs, reporting as a poverty correspondent for The Nation, and now editing TalkPoverty.org which regularly features posts from people living in poverty—Brooks’ “representative figures” remind me of exactly zero people I have met during this time. I’m not saying that these individuals don’t exist, but they have little to do with the policies or the morality we need to dramatically reduce poverty in America.
Brooks preaches that we should react to these stories with “intense sympathy,” but then ask people who are struggling questions like: “Are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good? Are you living for yourself or for your children? Do you have the freedom of self-control or are you in bondage to your desires?”
“Everybody struggles,” he writes. “But we need ideals and standards to guide the way.”
Katz presciently called out those like Brooks when he updated The Undeserving Poor in 2013 not long before his death: “The role of culture in the production and perpetuation of poverty…is enjoying a revival…[This] work remains implicitly animated by the questions, in what ways are poor people different (the answer is not because they lack money) and what should be done about these differences? They are not the most important questions to ask about poverty today.”
What we really need isn’t a moral revival but a moral revolution, one that might begin with Brooks and others looking in the mirror and asking some basic questions:
Do I accept that people working full-time are paid wages that keep them in poverty?
Do I accept that workers with low-incomes can’t take a paid sick day to care for themselves or a family member?
Do I accept that many parents can’t afford the childcare they need to go to work?
Do I accept that people with low-incomes often lack the transportation needed to get to job assignments and as a result are kicked off of income assistance?
Do I accept that our public schools are separate and unequal—with some kids forced to share textbooks while just miles away an affluent community has state-of-the-art facilities?
Do I propagate myths and stereotypes about people living in poverty, or do I help spread the truth—like the fact that more than 1 in 2 Americans will spend a year in poverty or near poverty during their working years?
When it comes to morality and supporting families, I’ll trust my favorite nun over Mr. Brooks any day. Testifying at a congressional hearing on the status of the War on Poverty, Sister Simone Campbell was asked if the real blame for continuing poverty is “the fact we’ve lost our family values? We’ve got single parents and so forth?”
She replied: “I practiced family law for 18 years in Oakland. I found with low-income families that the biggest cause of family break up was economic stressors. So I think the most important piece we could do to support families would be to raise the minimum wage.”
Katz had it exactly right when he closed his book noting “the promise of remaking poverty a moral issue—a result needed to overcome an ethical lapse in American politics and public discourse.”
On Saturday, Katz posthumously received a distinguished service award from the Organization of American Historians. It was well deserved, and his voice is still well worth listening to.