Woe to the poor: The sad face of America

Guai ai poveri: La faccia triste dell’America [“Woe to the poor: The sad face of America”, Gruppo Abele) by Elisabetta Grande, a professor of comparative law at the University of Eastern Piedmont (Italy), is a fresh take on America’s “War on the Poor”.

Engaging, well written and suitable for a non–expert audience, the book is both a detailed account of the USA’s stubbornly high rate of poverty, and a critical analysis of the politics that produced it.

From the very beginning, the author gives a full statistical picture of the subject: despite the recovery of the US economy, extreme poverty has been growing continuously for over forty years. According to conservative estimates of the US Census Bureau, in December 2014 almost 21 million people (men, women and, more shockingly, children) lived with an income that fell below half of the federal poverty threshold.

Unmasking the myth of poverty as a natural phenomenon by considering the economic, cultural, political and legal forces that lie behind it, Grande goes far beyond the depiction of a doomsday scenario.

The meticulously quantitative description of poverty in the essay is enriched by several life stories of real people stuck at the bottom of the economy.

Although the author doesn’t explain in detail the methodological tools she used to select and textualize the stories, the book is informative about the struggles of people who lost their jobs, homes, families and lives, often for reasons that go far beyond their personal choices and responsibilities.

A refined jurist, the author insists on the role of legislation in creating poverty, focusing particularly on the intertwining of the market and the law.

On one hand, the new rules of the international market favored what she defines as “extractive globalization” against workers, a form of globalization that led to a progressive loss in their contractual power, a decrease in their salaries and benefits and a general decline of their working conditions. On the other hand, the American legal system didn’t intervene to redress the situation: no longer conceived as re-distributors of wealth and distancing themselves from all forms of impositive progressiveness, the American fiscal policies eased the adverse effects of globalization. Establishing tax deductions for the rich and reducing fiscal pressure on capital gains, they ended up favoring the interests of the corporations and the unchallenged domination of the market.

Such politics, Grande remarks, were all but inevitable. A different model, that she defines a “generative globalization”, potentially linked with new egalitarian and redistributive policies, was deliberately rejected.

Guai ai poveri takes into account a further cause of the explosion of poverty in the USA. In what is probably the most striking part of the essay, the author reflects on the negative public discourses regarding poor families entailed in the government actions against poverty.

Looking at the cultural and symbolic representation of the poor is all but an abstract academic exercise, as the perceived beneficiary of policies bears practical consequence on how the policies themselves are designed. Breaking the continuity with the compassion towards the poor that characterized other historical phases like the New Deal and the years of Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan’s presidency spread skillful propaganda that turned those in greatest need into dangerous criminals or lazy parasites to be punished and removed from the streets.

In the same period, several prototypes of poor emerged. One of the best known is the so-called “Welfare Queen”. Introduced in the 1970s by Ronald Reagan, it referred to (black) single mothers accused of defrauding the government by accumulating welfare checks through false names and addresses.

Such stereotypes helped dismantle the USA welfare system carried on by bipartisan politics, from Reagan to Bill Clinton. In 1996, Clinton signed a sweeping welfare reform bill that cut off economic support to poor mothers, which was guaranteed by the American government since 1935. Since then the number of people living in extreme poverty ($2 per person, per day) has more than doubled.

A further stereotypical representation of the poor that Grande analyzes is the homeless. Although homelessness has been growing constantly over the past 35 years, she exhaustively discusses how its social composition has drastically changed in recent years. Unlike the image of the elderly, white, male, homeless drunkard, the homeless population today is mostly made up of families, and the fastest growing category of homeless people is children. Almost 50 percent of homeless people have a degree and between 30 and 40 percent work full or part time.

The homeless are now “a population within the population”: not only they have grown in number, but since the 1990’s they have become a target for “zero tolerance” political, legal and cultural practices.

The author builds a strong argument that the negative representation of the poor has systematically destroyed the protective barriers built over a long history of social struggles and policies, gradually transforming the “war on poverty” into a “war on the poor.”

The book’s title: Guai ai poveri, “Woe to the Poor” can refer both to the criminalization of poor people and to  the problems that poor people face in the contemporary USA, where people can be arrested if they are caught sleeping in a park or begging.

Guai ai poveri contributes to the understanding of the failure of the trickle-down theory’s rhetoric, as it makes clear that despite the growth of the USA GDP, wealth didn’t reach everyone. Although it doesn’t directly delve into current political issues, such as the recent election campaign, the book offers a good key to understand why Donald Trump was elected. This is highly relevant in Europe too where more and more countries seem to be embarking upon a similar path.

As already mentioned, the essay explores poverty in the USA focusing on the legal system that deliberately produced it. Needless to say, the new politics of poverty and the social representation of poverty are complex, multifaced and highly interdisciplinary subjects. It would be therefore interesting to investigate further some of the key issues that Elisabetta Grande raises.

A growing body of interdisciplinary feminist scholarship on governments and neoliberal policy have produced rich analyses on how poverty has been, and still is, gendered and radicalized not only by politicians but also by influential people. In Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery: An Essay on Popular Culture sociologist Eva Illouz suggests that, for many years, The Oprah Winfrey Show perpetuated a negative representation of the Welfare Queen, presented as an obstacle and a burden to the emancipation of black women. It would be thus interesting to investigate further the role of the emergent American black middle class and intelligentsia in retrieving the stereotype of the Welfare Queen.

Secondly, in 1996, drawing on a survey sample of Baltimore residents, sociologist George Wilson documented that Americans distinguished between different types of poverty. Asked about the causes of poverty, respondents pinpointed three different groups: welfare recipients, migrant laborers, and the homeless. They explained the existence of the homeless in primarily structural terms (no good schools, low wages, lack of jobs), welfare recipients in predominantly individualistic ways (lack of thrift, lack of effort, loose morals) and migrant laborers with a mix of structuralist and individualistic patterns. It would be pertinent to check whether Wilson’s assumptions are still valid today.

Finally, what role does the so-called, and well known, “Protestant work ethic” play in shaping cultural and religious belief about inequality, social hierarchies and poverty in contemporary North America? Weber’s concept, a classic in the literature which attracted widespread debate and criticism during the last century, clearly represented a subtle rhetorical device for politicians like Donald Trump, who embody the mainstream work ethic narrative to an extreme. After all, in the USA there has been a consistent emphasis on individualistic success stories that are romantically cast as the hallowed conquests of strong and patriotic men. For this reason, rather than approaching the Trump phenomenon as an already constituted object that simply awaits any analytic attention, cultural anthropologists are (perhaps belatedly) investigating what vision of work, consumption, saving, wealth and poverty the 60+ million who voted for Trump embraced.

In the age of Donald Trump and of nationalist populism in Western Europe, many academics showed their will to further debate the role of social sciences in the contemporary political landscape. As Paul Stoller wrote in a recent Huffington Post blog post, “Now is the time for ethnographers to step up to the plate and communicate our powerful insights to our students and to the public. Now is the time to craft a powerful counter-narrative that will ensure a viable future for our children and grandchildren.”

More analyses on the structural changes that the Western countries are facing are needed. More studies on the reconfigurations of power, wealth, and identity in today’s global neoliberalism are required now more then ever. Guai ai poveri perfectly fulfills these goals.

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