The American Conception of Poverty

Author: Nick Clyde, Johns Hopkins University


Just a few weeks ago, I was walking down Saint Paul Street between 32nd and 33rd street, where many of Charles Village’s homeless spend their days asking for change. It was a sunny, warm day and the leaves of the trees were just beginning to fall. As I approached the Village Lofts, a high-end condominium residence perched atop a row of sandwich shops, I saw an older homeless man sitting in front of the entrance playing his guitar. Not being in a great financial situation myself and therefore often unable to help out our local homeless, it warmed my heart to see a group of my classmates approach the man and hand him some cash. But as I passed the group by, I heard the guy who gave him the money say, “Go buy some drugs with that” amid chuckles from his friends. The poor man quietly returned, “I don’t do drugs. I don’t do drugs…”

Such is the American conception of poverty. My classmate did not know this man personally. He did not know what circumstances led to his situation. He did not know this man’s beliefs, if he has family, if he was laid off from his job, or if he had even eaten that day. Instead of seeing this man as a fellow human being in need of aid, my fellow classmate decided it was safe to assume he was a drug addict. What’s more, he chose to spite this man by encouraging such habits. All too often, Americans see poverty as a symptom of personal defects rather than itself being a symptom of societal flaws.

This kind of attitude is not rare. Though it is not quite as prevalent since the financial crisis, 44% of Americans still believe that the main cause of poverty is “people not doing enough to help themselves out of poverty.” This kind of belief is supported by the rhetoric of politicians like Paul Ryan, who said in 2012 that “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.” Too many Americans think that poor people would rather just collect benefits from welfare programs instead of trying to put themselves in a better position, even though welfare fraud accounts for only 1-2% of payments. What’s worse, this view is often held by those who have never been in poverty themselves. How did this happen? What are the causes of America’s beliefs about poverty, and why are they so persistent?

One of America’s most influential early thinkers, Ralph Waldo Emerson, is well-known for his writings dealing with individualism. He writes in his seminal essay Self-Reliance:

“Then again, do not tell me, as a good man did today, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousand-fold Relief Societies;—though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar, which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.”

This passage is all too often interpreted to mean that Emerson disdains charity because it makes the recipients dependent, rather than teaching them self-reliance, an ideal which supposedly encourages individuals to take personal responsibility for their actions. As one high school teacher puts it, “Relying on others is bondage in the author’s eyes and hinders the country from becoming what Emerson envisions–an individualistic utopia full of open-minded, critical-thinking humans.” This simplistic reading of Emerson is the norm in America, and it has enormous influence on the way we treat poverty. In fact, Emerson’s ideal is painted across many attempts to deal with poverty. One non-profit foundation describes its goal as “to support people and organizations who create sustainable solutions to poverty and empower people to become self-reliant.” Op-eds across the web emphasize the need for the poor to be self-reliant. There is even a proposal to change the official measure of poverty to base it on “the inability to be self-reliant.” The idea that you have to lift yourself up by your own bootstraps to escape poverty runs deep in the American consciousness: it is the American Dream.

Unfortunately, many Americans are now finding that the American Dream is just that: a dream. When the realities of income inequality, poor social mobility, and decreasing wages as a share of economic activity hit, it’s time to wake up. For many of those in the lower income brackets, there aren’t any bootstraps to pull on. For those who have to spend their waking hours worrying about what their family’s next meal is and how they’re going to pay for it, developing new skills or going to school to improve their economic standing is simply impossible. But even if they could, it wouldn’t matter much. It’s time to start acknowledging that there are real, structural forces in our economic and political systems which prevent citizens who live in terrible conditions from escaping the clutches of poverty.


What’s more, it might turn out that our interpretation of Emerson was misguided all along. In his book Emerson’s Transcendental Etudes, philosopher Stanley Cavell analyzes the typical response to the section of Self-Reliance quoted above. He criticizes other scholars who claim that “a doctrine of righteous selfishness is here propounded,” and that Self-Reliance constitutes “the American religion Emerson founded.” These face-value readings, according to Cavell, are short-sighted and do not take into account the rest of Emerson’s writings or even the immediate context. Cavell claims that “when Emerson adds of the wicked dollar, ‘which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold,’ he does not exactly mean that he will further harden his heart but that by and by he will live in a society which has achieved manhood, that one day humankind will not require the dole from one another.” Emerson refuses the wicked dollar not because he believes it will make the recipient dependent, but rather because he believes it will support the status quo which makes poverty a normality. For Emerson, then, self-reliance is not meant to be a selfish ideal, but rather a call to escape conformity, to question the conventional wisdom of others, and to trust one’s own instincts and judgments while still thinking critically.

Perhaps it’s time for a radical shift in the American conception of poverty. Maybe instead of conforming to the status quo which tells us that people are poor as a result of their own actions, we should recognize the effect that powerful economic and political forces can have on someone, even if they do everything right. Maybe we should trust our own instincts and recognize that poverty affects real human beings, with feelings, relationships, and values just like our own. And maybe, just maybe, we should start to question the conventional wisdom that the economic and political systems that we’ve constructed are truly beneficial to us all. Indeed, as corporate profits continue to soar and wages are at an all-time low, it’s starting to look less and less like wisdom.

“The inability of our American culture to listen to the words, to possess them in common, of one of the founding thinkers of our culture,” Cavell demurs, “presents itself to me as our refusal to listen to ourselves, to our own best thoughts.” In order to escape the nightmare that the American Dream has turned into, we have to start listening.


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