Conservative poverty narratives of personal failure and cultural pathology have been simplistic and broadcast loudly. Progressive structural poverty narratives have been muzzled, muddled, and muted. (More)

The Undeserving Poor, Part III: Muzzled, Muddled, and Muted

This week Morning Feature looks at Michael Katz’s newly-updated book The Undeserving Poor: America’s Enduring Confrontation with Poverty. Wednesday we began with why President Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty, and the startling successes of those programs. Yesterday we reviewed the history of conservative and libertarian views on the roots of poverty in personal failure and cultural pathology. Today we see the history of progressive views on the roots of poverty in privilege, power, and our political economy. Saturday we’ll conclude with my view of poverty as an instrument of workplace discipline and social control.

“Colonial subjects in relation to the white society”

The early progressive narratives about poverty were written by upper-middle-class white men, who often saw the poor as passive victims in need of rescue. But one of the most compelling explanations of poverty emerged, briefly, from the Black Power Movement of the 1960s. This narrative drew a direct line between poverty in the U.S. and liberation movements in the Third World. In this theory, the plight of the poor in the U.S. was not simply similar to that of the poor in South Africa, Nicaragua, or India. Instead, their similar plight had the same cause: white colonialism.

Katz quotes Kwame Ture (then Stokely Carmichael) and Charles Hamilton’s Black Power: The Politics of Liberation:

Black Americans, wrote Carmichael and Hamilton, formed “a colony, and it is not in the interest of the colonial power to liberate them.” Although blacks were legal citizens, they stood as “colonial subjects in relation to white society.” Colonialism, they argued, operated in three areas: political, economic, and social. Like other colonial masters, whites made the key political decisions that affected blacks’ lives and governed them through indirect rule by coopting selected blacks to administer their decisions. As in other colonial situations, the colony existed “for the sole purpose of enriching, in one form or another, the ‘colonizer.'” Outside “exploiters” entered the ghetto, bled “it dry,” and left it “economically dependent on the larger society.”

Although they focused on the plight of urban blacks, Ture and Hamilton could have made the same argument about Appalachian mining towns, Native American reservations, migrant farm workers, and other impoverished ‘colonies’ within the U.S., and their thesis rings eerily familiar today:

The colonial analogy rejected the core premise of conventional development economics: the benefits of economic growth. Radical scholars argued that wealth created by economic growth did not automatically trickle down from rich to poor. In Third World countries, poverty had spread even as economies modernized and grew. Without changes in political control, the benefits of growth always failed to reach those most in need. In fact, growth had widened the gap between rich and poor.
Applied to America, the colonial model was straightforward: Ghettos export their unskilled labor and import consumer goods. Most capital within them remains in the hands of outsiders who control local businesses and export their profits. Unable to import capital, ghettos neither produce the material needed for their subsistence nor accumulate the capital essential to development. Blacks who work outside the ghetto bring back wages too low to offset the drain of their energy and resources. The result is exploitation and dependency, or what some called “domestic colonialism.”

“The relentless assault of the FBI and other public authorities”

Not all black scholars agreed with the “domestic colonialism” view, and many who agreed in principle disagreed over the details and proposed solutions. Still, it framed poverty not as a personal or cultural failure of the poor, but a condition imposed and maintained by exploitative outsiders. Black Power activists stood in solidarity with overseas liberation movements that our government saw as fronts in the Cold War struggle … and the result was predictable:

By the late 1970s, debates about the ghetto as colony, like the Black Power movement with which they were so intimately connected, had faded. In the case of Black Power, one reason was the relentless assault of the FBI and other public authorities who broke up the movement through infiltration, propaganda, and jailing and killing its leaders. Even as they turned to practical reformist activity, the Black Panthers could not escape the powerful campaign of law enforcement to destroy them and discredit their activities.[…] Neither the literature of internal colonialism nor Black Power left a strong institutional legacy or influence on economic and political thought. For [Freedom Dreams author Robin] Kelley, “describing black people as colonial subjects was a way of characterizing the materialist culture of racism; it was more a metaphor than an analytical concept.”

Yet Katz argues it was far more than that: the first major theory of U.S. poverty as a condition of places – rather than of people – and one “more firmly anchored than its successor, concentrated poverty … in political economy.”

“A path from the community to prison or cemetery”

More recent progressive research has returned to a focus on place, but in the context of how concentrations of poverty create self-perpetuating conditions. Katz quotes sociologist Elijah Anderson:

“Living in areas of concentrated ghetto poverty, still shadowed by the legacy of slavery and second-class citizenship, too many black men are trapped in a horrific cycle that includes active discrimination, unemployment, poverty, crime, prison, and early death.”
“The social costs of impoverishment fell particularly on the heads of the young black men who were feared by the rest of society and left to fend for themselves by white authorities. In his alienation and use of violence, the contemporary poor young black male is a new social type peculiar to postindustrial urban America. This young man is in profound crisis.” From childhood onward, he walks a path “from the community to prison to cemetery, or at least to a life of trouble characterized by unemployment, discrimination, and participation in … an oppositional culture.” For many black men, “the reality of daily life … in areas of concentrated poverty revolves around simply meeting the challenge of ‘staying alive.'”

Katz quotes the daunting statistics: the proportion of 21- to 25-year-old black men out of the labor force rose from 9% in 1940 to 27% in 1990 and 34% in 2000 … while the economy was growing for other Americans. Some of that, Katz writes, is because black men were increasingly in prison, often for non-violent drug offenses that were largely ignored when committed by whites. Until 2007, federal sentencing guidelines imposed far more severe sentences for crack cocaine (more commonly used by blacks) as compared to powdered cocaine (more commonly used by whites).

Prison, Katz writes, became “the state welfare program for young black men,” putting the lie to conservative tropes about marriage as the solution to poverty:

Joblessness, incarceration, poor health and early death: all go a long way toward explaining the persistence of poverty among inner-city black men and the dearth of “marriageable” men for young black women.

Indeed recent research shows that – contrary to the Republican mythmarriage rarely benefits poor single mothers, as poor men are more likely to find themselves unemployed, and many working poor women avoid marriage for that very reason.

“The absence of functioning markets”

A still more recent progressive narrative has focused on the absence of functioning markets in impoverished regions. As Katz relates, the rise of microfinancing seemed an ideal answer. It was inexpensive, grounded in capitalism, and did not challenge global or local distributions of political power. Promote investment – through microloans or tax-sheltered “enterprise,” “empowerment,” or now “promise” zones – and the untapped human capital in impoverished communities will flourish.

The theory sounds nice, but it only works if the capital invested in an impoverished community stays in that community. In practice, non-profit microloans have given way to for-profit lenders whose interest rates extract much of the prospect for growth. Add in the tax breaks – which leave local governments less able to provide essential services – and this “market solution” starts to look a whole lot like the “domestic colonies” described by Ture, Hamilton, and other writers of the 1960s and 70s.

Thus have progressive theories of poverty been muzzled, muddled, and muted … while conservative theories are bankrolled by well-monied think tanks and echoed until they become the consensus among what Paul Krugman calls Very Serious People.

Tomorrow I’ll conclude with my thoughts on why those Very Serious People – and many others – actually value poverty as a tool of workplace discipline and social control.


Happy Friday!