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Is it a war on poverty, or a war on poor people?

by John Nethercut
January 8, 2014

Is it a war on poverty, or a war on poor people? There has been a decided shift in public discourse to the latter: poverty is said to be the result of undeserving, lazy, dependent people making poor decisions. Cutting the long list of programs from the Great Society days is now argued not just as a financial matter, but as a moral necessity to force the individual to make better decisions.

There is a meanness of spirit to placing sole blame on the individual.  And also some flawed logic. Consider this:

  • Two-thirds of poor people work -- and two-thirds of them have part of their earned wages stolen by their employers every year.  Are these jobs just really poor career choices? Or were those the only jobs available?
  • Many people considered “poor” live in housing that does not meet health and safety codes, and the average Baltimore renter is sued 1.2 times per year for nonpayment of rent.  Is this because they’re just really lousy money managers?  Or because they don’t have enough money to meet the basic needs of their family every month? Seventy-seven percent of Baltimore City renters  cannot afford a market rate rental that is up to code.
  • When homeless children can’t enroll in or get transportation to school, is that because they don’t feel like going to school anymore? Or is it because the school system cannot adequately support kids without an address?

Blaming the victim will not reduce poverty. To the contrary, cutting the social safety net has caused an increase in poverty and inequality.

But blaming "the system" as the cause of all poverty and injustice is also flawed, in a different way: it denigrates the humanity and power of the people who are the victims of the system.  People, whether rich or poor, make choices from the range of opportunities made available to them.  Each of us individually is responsible for the choices we make, but we don’t get to choose the options.  As Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.”

At the Public Justice Center, we look at the legal and social systems that cause injustice, poverty, and discrimination, because those systems create the context of our clients' lives, the options they will have to choose between. Those systems either squelch or enliven our clients' ability to take care of themselves and their families and fulfill their human rights and aspirations.  Those systems may provide an avenue out or up, or they may be the roadblock that leaves no good choices.  The war on poverty will end when opportunities to leave poverty are made available to all. Once we achieve that, just watch what decisions people will make!

We want to hear from you! You can be a part of this dialogue. Your thoughts, reactions, and questions will greatly enrich our conversation. Email them to Jiyoon at kimj@publicjustice.org with the subject line “Let's talk about this.”   You can also follow this conversation on Facebook or tweet @Publjusticecntr with your responses using the national hashtag #talkpoverty.

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