Domestically, we have one disease that kills more people than any other. That imprisons people in a life that falls short of their potential, that forces people into crime, addiction, homelessness, and illness. It’s a scourge upon men, women, and children, the very old, the very sick, the disempowered, disenfranchised, and marginalized. It has one cause: the lack of money in a capitalist system. It has every negative symptom you can imagine: from despair to death, and every form of ruin in between.
And yet the way we treat this disease, the way we tackle this malady, is categorically different than the way we approach everything else. There is no race for the cure to poverty, no attempt to stop poverty in its tracks before it starts, no effort to eradicate poverty entirely. Instead, we just try to patch up the symptoms for any given person and lift them out of it, getting them over it temporarily so others can be threshed back down to take their place. Maybe this is actually a bit more like how Americans view other diseases too, but it’s a devastatingly ineffective way to deal with any problem. To change this ineffectiveness, we need to acknowledge the structural factors that ensure the existence of poverty and recognize that only when those are altered or eliminated can we actually move the needle on poverty as a concept, not just move poverty around between different people.
My convictions about poverty being the root cause of all our domestic American ills doesn’t just stem from a predisposition against capitalism. It comes from almost a decade spent as a non-profiteer at various levels, in both direct service and administration. The problem we were treating was always poverty. Whether it manifest in addiction, abuse, hunger, or dropping out of school, the critical problem putting people in toxically stressful situations that led to bad impacts was always a lack of money. This is not to say that the rich cannot be addicted to drugs or commit physical violence or abuse, but that the reason that most people are susceptible to these things is because they are poor. Some people use drugs purely recreationally and lose control, but most people use drugs as a way of medicating their impossible financial situations, of finding some glimpse of happiness amidst the despair of their everyday world. Hunger, homelessness, lack of medical care, and other issues are more obviously and concretely the result of poverty. Crime and cycles of crime are almost entirely rooted in poverty. Yes, there are poor people who still resist the temptation to turn to crime and there are rich criminals, but most of the people rotting in American prisons were put there by cultural and societal cycles that left them with few to no viable opportunities to get ahead financially. The correlation between poverty and dropping out of high school is mammoth. Ditto the correlation between poverty and criminal conviction. Not least because the rich criminals can pay someone to keep them out of prison.
And where other problems exist, the way they manifest their harm is primarily through the vehicle of poverty. Far be it from me to say that various forms of oppression, from racism to sexism to homophobia to imperialism, don’t exist. But they manifest in one of two ways: violence or poverty. And violence is a very real issue and problem that is sometimes separate from poverty and trust me, as a pacifist I believe in stopping violence in all its forms. But at least we all recognize, codify laws, and work together to stand against violence (in all forms besides wars). There is not a major groundswell in society that says a certain amount of domestic or racist violence is super-necessary to a well-ordered society and the proper incentives. But we do make this argument about poverty all the time. Or at least, those defending capitalism do.
Other than violence, though, the fallout from racism, sexism, homophobia, and imperialism is primarily economic: it’s forcing people into poverty. Purveyors of these ‘isms deny jobs and opportunities to their targeted groups, deny them possible benefits or social programs that would lift them out, and generally demean their worth in a way that manifests in keeping them ensconced in poverty. There is still racism against Barack Obama and it’s unfortunate, but it doesn’t meaningfully reduce his ability to impact the world, because he’s kept himself out of poverty. Same with Michael Jordan or Oprah Winfrey or Neil deGrasse Tyson. Which is not to say that racism against them is still bad and something we should fight against, but they have largely been able to overcome its meaningful ability to negatively impact their life. Whereas the millions of their brothers and sisters who are being denied opportunities based on race do not enjoy this luxury.
Put another way, poverty is the enforcement mechanism for most of the harm done by ‘isms. The hate and myopia of ‘isms is obviously wrong on face, but it would have few to no teeth without the ability to keep people impoverished. Statistics that prove racism persists as a problem in our society tend to use poverty as the driving force of their proof, showing that traditionally marginalized groups enjoy fewer economic opportunities and experience worse financial outcomes than their white male peers. This demonstrates that most of the harm done here manifests in poverty. If poverty didn’t exist, haters would lose a key tool, perhaps the biggest single tool, in their arsenal of oppression.
The problem with how we approach poverty is that we see it as an individual issue. We take each person as a stand-alone case of poverty and then try to treat their individual symptoms, while ignoring the obvious fact that they suffer from a widespread and entrenched epidemic. This would be roughly akin to treating each individual person with AIDS as their own new unique case, trying to conquer the disease anew with each patient. It would be inefficient, ineffective, and unconscionable to take this approach with disease, and yet we suffer under the delusion that poverty is largely a choice and that a heightened sense of personal responsibility can defeat it.
This belief is exacerbated not only by Republican values, but by the fact that some people do seem to be able to lift themselves out of poverty by sheer force of will. Many of our stories about this phenomenon are exaggerated and even apocryphal, fueling our delusional obsession with this as the only viable solution to the problem. We ignore the real role of luck in their stories, or the hidden advantages they had over others that enabled their rise from poverty. And then we tout these few exceptional examples as proof that anyone facing crippling poverty can overcome it easily, with a little pluck or grit or a well-timed tug on the old bootstrap. We are a nation obsessed with this belief structure because treating poverty this way if it were a disease would be too horrifyingly callous and impossible to face. It’s tantamount to holding the few people whose inoperable cancers suddenly go into remission as the exemplars of how to treat and fight cancer. “Everyone can go into remission if they just try hard enough!” This is the brand of medicine we advocate for a whole society of people being driven toward untimely death by poverty.
Not buying that poverty is like a disease? It’s fueled by environmental and hereditary factors with statistical correlations nearly as high as transmission rates of most communicable diseases. People are vastly more likely to live in poverty if they are surrounded by people in poverty, if they live in high-poverty neighborhoods, if their family members (especially parents) suffer from poverty. It does irreparable physical, mental, and emotional harm to its sufferers. It is growing and spreading. Even when some people are able to recover, others become infected. Having suffered poverty makes one more likely to suffer from it in the future (making it more like a degenerative or recurring disease than, say, the chicken pox). If left untreated, it often kills the host.
Unlike disease, though, our capitalist society structurally requires a certain number of people to suffer from poverty in order to function in the image its constructed of itself. Capitalism hinges on people being driven into terrible and abusive jobs because they fear the impacts of poverty. It also requires them to not really realize that those same jobs keep them entrenched in poverty, clinging to a belief that if they work long enough or hard enough in those positions, they will eventually escape. This is roughly akin to downing placebos in the hope that they will cure a terminal disease. It might make you feel a little better in the short-term, but it won’t save you from what’s actually hurting you.
And yet even if you believe that personal responsibility is somehow a factor in someone being in poverty, the placebo treatment is an idiotic way to approach it. For example, lung cancer is a disease that we largely feel most sufferers experience because of choices they made earlier in life, and thus they bear some responsibility for it. However, we don’t thus say that the only solution we will offer lung cancer sufferers is to pop placebos and hope they get better or magically enter remission. We still treat their case like the disease it is, still spend billions seeking a cure for their ailment.
And yet the cure to poverty is staring us in the face. Create a system that doesn’t allow people to be poor. Where a basic standard of living cannot be infringed, no matter what choices or decisions you make. Where you will have a place to live, clothes to wear, food to eat, treatment of disease, and a safe place to be, no matter what. Less the safety part, this is literally what we guarantee prisoners, those most marginalized and maligned in our society, people who most would agree really have chosen to do something terrible with their lives. It’s sadly ironic that we feel that prisoners deserve a basic minimum and it would be inhumane to deny them these items, but children born into poverty deserve no such similar safety net. And we wonder why so many of those children grow up to wind up in prison.
The only argument I’ve ever really heard against guaranteeing a basic quality of life to all is that it costs too much and that it reduces the incentive to work. I feel like the folks making these arguments miss basic facts about human psychology. People are actually much more able to work effectively and more motivated to do so when they are not doing so at metaphorical gunpoint. And forcing people to work against their will is the moral equivalent of slavery. Actually, it’s the literal definition of slavery! The fact that slavery made some sort of unjust economic system appear to function is not a valid argument for slavery as a system.
But does this system actually work? A great deal of government and virtually the entirety of the non-profit sector spends their time and money fighting the uphill, ineffective battle with poverty. Treating one person at a time, one situation at a time as though it’s not part of a larger preventable disease, these groups spend billions and billions of dollars trying to eradicate poverty in a wholly ineffective manner. This would be saved in a system without poverty. Then there’s the prison system and police forces. Yes, there’d still be some violence and you’d need a skeleton crew of these industries even without poverty. But over 90% of crime would be eliminated. Which also would drastically reduce one of our most expensive industries – the court system. When you start to think about all the mechanisms and spending we have in place to reactively try to fight back against the tide of poverty rather than prevent it in the first place, you have enough money to fund poverty prevention many times over.
It’s only our belief that people in poverty somehow deserve it and/or our belief that capitalism as currently structured is intractably inevitable that keep us from changing this system, saving money, and saving just about everyone in our society. Both of these claims, about desert and inevitability, are facially laughable. The biggest single factor in determining whether one is impoverished is whether one’s parents are impoverished, the textbook definition of an immutable characteristic. A massive portion of those in poverty are children who lack the agency to make any decisions about their fate. And systems of society change constantly. We are constantly tweaking and altering aspects of our society, large and small, and every monarchy, dictatorship, and tribal structure that came before was equally convinced that they were at the terminal arrangement of human affairs before the next tide of change swept in. We are imprisoning ourselves in a myopic, idiotic, unnecessary cycle of disease. That is worse for most of its victims than prison itself. What will it take for us to recognize this reality and start working actively to change it?