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    « An Open Letter to Governor Huntsman | Main | Childhood: Right »

    Poverty, Defined


    “Language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation” –Angela Carter

    Language has always been the front line in the battle for mindshare.  From the faulty soap formula that becomes 99 and 44/100% pure, to the Marlboro Man that transforms a cigarette originally intended for women into a symbol of machismo, we are daily surrounded by this war’s weaponry.

    Today the semantic skirmish centers on poverty.  Not poverty itself, though—the war on poverty is one long fought—but on the word poverty: its definition, its place in the mind of the body politic.

    As a pawn in the larger political chessboard, both the far right and far left are staking claims, forcing us daily into a conversation with words we no longer own.  The left argues that the official definitions remain absurd, with many diligent and industrious people forced into a class known as the working poor, where 40 hours isn’t enough for food and shelter, to say nothing of health care or advanced education. This story is always wrapped up in a cycle of poverty imaged in half-broken urban neighborhoods.  The far right oppositionally posits a wealthier poor, people who take the Nanny State handout, rarely or barely try to find work, yet still manage to afford oversized rims and plasma television sets.

    Both sides play the race and class games while claiming we don’t and they do; both use images that miss the point; both definitions deserve our disdain.


    Last spring I learned about poverty in a way that neither extreme really cares about.

    My wife and I drove from Louisville, Kentucky to Asheville, North Carolina, traveling down what William Least Heat-Moon calls “blue highways.” We told our GPS to ignore major roads and she (we call the disembodied directioneer “Becky”) took us from small town to small town through rural Kentucky and Tennessee. 

    Every town was dead.

    Store after store had plywood windows and For Sale signs.  Parking meters languished, hungrily empty. An occasional pickup truck supported a local resident who leaned on it while smoking a cigarette.  If there was a movie theater the marquee was blank; if there was a town square the benches were empty. Meanwhile, just outside of town and away from any main street, the parking lots at the Wal-Marts and Targets and Burger Kings and Taco Bells were full. 

    Driving further away from the town center brought us to small neighborhoods with kempt houses, neat lawns and bent television antennas.   The cars weren’t falling apart, but neither were they new.  None had fancy rims.

    Once the neighborhoods slipped into the rear view mirror, we came to the farmlands, many still suffering from recent floods.  Here you could smell the struggle in the air. 

    These blue highways, filled with good-hearted, hard-working people, these are the places of poverty in America, the poverty neither the far right nor far left wants to talk about simply because there is no sound bite, no emotionally charged message, to stir people up.  This poverty is just about people who need a little help, people who want to restart the small businesses that make up their towns’ lifeblood.  But they don’t have a voice; they don’t have a language.  There was a time when both Republicans and Democrats cared about these people but that day seems gone now.

    Perhaps we can speak for them ourselves.  Perhaps, if we ignore the manipulations forced on us daily and think about where the real poverty lies, we can truly address it, truly have the right conversation for a change.





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    Reader Comments (5)

    Excellent points.

    Isn't it fascinating how poverty and the poor are once again (and always?) pawns in the political process despite how they never seem to actually get invited to the table and elevated into the actual participation in the decision making process? I wonder how many of them appreciate that, in the final analysis, they are little more than a wedge issue, like children and abortion and immigrants?

    I wonder how many of them know about the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision last year and what it portends for our democracy? More than that, I wonder how many of the good and decent people you passed along the way believe that the current incarnation of the GOP, given who is making the most noise in it vis-a-vis your earlier post, will go to the polls thinking that Republicans who favor further deregulation of financial markets, even lower tax rates for wealthy individuals and corporations, and the complete de-funding of social programs so many of them may depend upon are on their side?

    I'm not saying that the Democrats have it all right and perfect, but I struggle to understand how anyone living in those small towns, on those farms, or in cities and towns all over America who aren't among the richest 2% can truly feel a sense of connection and affinity with the Republican (in Name Only) Party of today. I think the answer is the mythology of Reagan's smaller government and trickle down economics. Warren Buffett is right. Trickle down doesn't work. We need checks-and-balances that haven't existed for a long time.

    Thought you might appreciate this article:

    Here's my take on where we are today:

    I am, of course, nowhere near "the center" pictured in your earlier graphic. I know that you're left of it, too, as are most people.

    I do lean further left than many because I believe that is where the true center of humanity is and ought to be; left of center, where the most people have the greatest opportunity to benefit and thrive from a balance between free market capitalism and,yes, a degree of socialism. IMHO, for example, it's not heresy to want health care for every human being, for corporations to pay taxes and be punished for polluting the environment, and for financial markets to be constrained so that we don't have to ever again allow them to privatize all the gains and socialize all the losses.

    Just my 2 cents. Best always.

    September 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGreg

    Thanks for the response, Greg (and I'll check out the links). I think you've hit the nail on the head with your comment about "wedge issues." Truthfully, neither party does much for the poor except to use them as symbols, and the GOP has done a much more effective job of preying on emotions in order to get votes from them.

    There is an excellent book and documentary called "What's the Matter With Kansas?" that talks in detail about these things. One of the most striking comments in the film was one Republican saying that he would probably be a Democrat if it weren't for the abortion issue: the result is that he votes against his own (and his family's) best interests. It's one of the reasons I'm so passionate these days about what I'm doing--the more we can expose the spin, the more people can think for themselves rather than as others want them to.

    September 25, 2011 | Registered CommenterMichael Charney

    This story makes me feel sad and disappointed in our so called political system; I am a naturalized American citizen, lived in this great country of ours for over 40 years and all I have to say is: In America? The land of opportunities? WTH! I am also a" boomer" and think it is time we start to come out of the closet and begin to advocate for human rights again!

    October 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarcia Clarke

    Thanks for the comment, Marcia. "Sad" and "disappointed" were exactly the feelings I had during that trip. In our quest for the next, fast, cheap, quick thing in our lives--whether food or clothing or toys--we've lost sight of what makes us who and what we are as a nation. When I think, for example, about the Occupy Wall Streeters, I imagine that this is the kind of thing they're really fighting for (even if it's not well articulated).

    October 11, 2011 | Registered CommenterMichael Charney

    Some of us are trying to think about poverty and poor people a differently.
    Check out these links to papers and projects:

    Community Economies Collective:

    Rethinking Urban Poverty in the United States:

    June 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnn

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