Today, In “Things David Brooks Doesn’t Understand”: Poverty

Yep I'm Poor postsecretIn an impressive, old-school takedown that doesn’t use the words “mansplaining” or “privilege,” New Republic writer Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig explains why NYT columnist David Brooks — who I think of as white bread with glasses — is mistaken about poverty.

Brooks’ underlying assumption is wrong: The baseline moral values of poor people do not, in fact, differ that much from those of the rich. Poor people feel ashamed of the incarceration of relatives. The poor, too, want to get married at roughly the same rates as the rich, though the rich have an easier time pulling it off. Matrimonial aspirations, then, are decaying no faster among the poor than the well-off; it’s only the ability to maintain a marriage under the stressors of poverty that seems to put poor families on unsteady ground. Lastly, lest anyone suspect the welfare-queen narrative about poor people eschewing hard work and responsibility holds true, Stephen Pimpare observes in his book A People’s History of Poverty in America that the stigma and shame of poverty and welfare are alive and well …

It is so, so easy, criminally easy, to assume people are poor because they’ve done something wrong and so deserve it. “They” make bad choices, “they” have bad values, “they” buy too many lattes or drugs or fancy sneakers or whatever. It is comforting to think this way because it allows the people making these judgments to enjoy the often fleeting illusion of feeling a) superior, and b) safe.

The truth is, though, you can be on top today and on bottom tomorrow, or vice versa, and much of your position in both cases is attributable to chance. The #1 cause of bankruptcy is medical expenses, not low moral standards; and over 3/4 of the people who have to file had some kind of health insurance to start with.

Lots of poor people work hard. Lots of rich people get lucky. You are not a favorite of the Lord because you have a Maserati, and God doesn’t hate you if you can’t make rent. In fact, if you wanna get all Biblical about it, Ruth, the ancestress of King David (and, or so the story goes, Jesus), was so poor she lived off of scraps from other people’s fields. Which is the kind of thing people had to do before there was any kind of welfare state.

Speaking of the welfare state, the NYT’s Paul Krugman has posted a chart so that we can deal with the facts about America’s much-maligned entitlement programs. He summarizes:

The “nation of takers” stuff is deeply misleading. Until the economic crisis, income security had no trend at all. The only way to make it seem as if means-tested programs were exploding is to include Medicaid, which has gone up in part because of rising costs, in part because of a major expansion to cover children (all those 11-year-old bums on welfare, you know).

The unfortunate thing is that, odds are, only people who already agree with Krugman read Krugman. Similarly, most of the people who read Brooks are either excited to disagree with him or are excited to nod along to his ideas from their cozy breakfast nooks. And that’s part of what’s so damaging. When Brooks says, “High-school-educated parents dine with their children less than college-educated parents, read to them less, talk to them less, take them to church less, encourage them less and spend less time engaging in developmental activity,” he’s, for the most part, not addressing an audience of high-school educated parents who can respond, “By gum! He’s right! I should read to my kids more, even though I’m exhausted from working two minimum-wage jobs and I’ve thrown my back out again!”

No, he’s addressing, generally, the well-to-do college-educated set, and giving them a reason to feel increasingly entitled to their advantages, rather than grateful for them.

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