This article originally appeared at TalkPoverty.org.
There’s no point beating around this bush. An anti-poverty movement led by the middle and upper classes is doomed to failure. Equally, a partisan movement will never manage to get much done. That said, it’s never a bad thing when people discuss these things—there are 45 million people living in poverty in America, after all. Poverty looks like everything.
Occupy Wall Street was a great moment in the progressive movement. It did a lot to change the national discussion about poverty and inequality. But to people like me—from a small town in rural Utah—it looked like a bunch of confused, disaffected youth. Progressives understand their own language, why you might lead a group of thousands by consensus. I saw a woman who had named herself Ketchup waving jazz hands on national TV and realized that this movement wasn’t for me or my people.
I watched the Tea Party form—a populist movement as far as most of its participants understood it. My family members are Tea Partiers, waving guns and flags and talking about federal overreach. But to people like me—a center-left libertarian sort—it looked like a bunch of angry Baby Boomers trying to regain their glory days and demanding that those of us in the younger generations continue to pick up the tab for their lifelong profligacy. Keep your government hands off my Medicaid, indeed. That movement wasn’t for me either.
A movement that works has to be apartisan. It has to be pragmatic. It has to avoid divisive social issues—there are plenty of programs we can agree on, plenty of problems we can point out. It doesn’t matter whether a McDonald’s worker agrees with abortion or not, they still deserve a higher wage.
America’s working classes are pragmatic people. It’s the only way to survive. When a cook loans a cashier ten bucks until payday, nobody’s vetting each other for their ideological purity on drones or gay marriage. It’s just workers helping each other out, because one thing you learn in the service industry is that you’re all in it together.
That’s the ethos that will create a real anti-poverty movement. That’s the coalition that can win.
We need a robust debate in America on social issues. But we do ourselves no favors by essentially splitting our potential support in half before we even get started. Two-thirds of Americans live paycheck to paycheck—what if we got them all asking about counterproductive welfare regulations, talking about how ridiculous it is to worry about the spending habits of the lower classes when there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around?