Rediscovering Poverty. How We Cured
"The Culture of Poverty," But Not Poverty Itself

by Barbara Ehrenreich



PREFACE

The Religious Right is in the habit of "chattering" unsympathetically and somewhat callously about a "Culture of Poverty" that supposedly infuses the circumstances that regulate the poor. Proponents of this theory argue that the poor are not simply lacking resources, but also have a unique and very damaging value system. According to Oscar Lewis, a strong proponent of this disgraceful social theory -

"... the subculture [of the poor] develops mechanisms that tend to perpetuate it, especially because of what happens to the world view, aspirations, and character of the children who grow up in it."

According to this supposition, people in the "culture of poverty" have a strong feeling of helplessness and dependency. They are a marginal people who know only their own troubles, their own local conditions, their own neighborhood, their own way of life.

In one way or another, this cold-hearted, mean-spirited theory of poverty has been embraced by ALL the "leading lights" of today's evangelical church, to include: Peter Wagner, Paul Crouch, Jack Hayford, Charles Stanley, the late D. James Kennedy, Tim LaHaye, the late John Wimber, Juan Carlos Ortiz, Beverley LaHaye, Ern Baxter, Kenneth Copeland, Kenneth Hagin, Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell, Chuck Colson, David Yonggi Cho, Robert Stearns, Mike Bickle, Reuven Doron, Che Ahn, Frank Hammond, Cindy Jacobs, Bill Hamon, John Eckhardt, Bobbie Byerly, Dutch Sheets, Jim Goll, John Paul Jackson, James Ryle, Frank Damazio, Ed Silvoso, Carlos Annacondia, Claudio Freidzon, Roger Mitchell, Ted Haggart, Paul Cain, Chuck Pierce, Rick Joyner, Kingsley Fletcher, Jim Laffoon, Barbara Wentroble, ad infinitum. The theoretical premise (mechanism) that has been used by these APOSTATES to insinuate this evil and extremely NON-biblical way of thinking into the mindset of the Christian church is known popularly as the "Gospel of Prosperity." [Please see APPENDIX 1 to this article.]

NOTE: For an honest discussion of the condition the poor find themselves in, please see our articles, "Measuring the Depravity of the Elites: Pacifying the Poor through Drug Addiction," "Der Untermensch" and "The Utility of Police Brutality in the Elite's War against the Poor."]

The "Gospel of Prosperity" is the belief that God wants Christians to be financially rich. It confirms to the wealthy that their wealth is proof God loves them, and that it's okay to pursue wealth, even to make it top priority.

Needless to say, this so-called "gospel" is quite different from Jesus' teachings about abundance, which urges us to share instead of hoarding our many blessings. The gospel of prosperity feeds directly into the worst parts of The American Dream with its focus on possessions as signs of success. [Please see our article, "Capitalism and Christianity."]

Barbara Ehrenreich details the secular origin of this malicious way of thinking and traces its popularity to the mindset regarding the poor that Ronald Reagan introduced to the country as a whole during his presidency. [Please see our article, "Making a Crime out of Being Poor and Homeless."]

-- Antipas

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It's been exactly 50 years since Americans, or at least the non-poor among them, "discovered" poverty, thanks to Michael Harrington's engaging book The Other America. If this discovery now seems a little overstated, like Columbus's "discovery" of America, it was because the poor, according to Harrington, were so "hidden" and "invisible" that it took a crusading left-wing journalist to ferret them out.  

Harrington's book jolted a nation that then prided itself on its classlessness and even fretted about the spirit-sapping effects of "too much affluence." He estimated that one quarter of the population lived in poverty -- inner-city blacks, Appalachian whites, farm workers, and elderly Americans among them. We could no longer boast, as President Nixon had done in his "kitchen debate" with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow just three years earlier, about the splendors of American capitalism.

At the same time that it delivered its gut punch, The Other America also offered a view of poverty that seemed designed to comfort the already comfortable. The poor were different from the rest of us, it argued, radically different, and not just in the sense that they were deprived, disadvantaged, poorly housed, or poorly fed. They felt different, too, thought differently, and pursued lifestyles characterized by shortsightedness and intemperance. As Harrington wrote,

"There is... a language of the poor, a psychology of the poor, a worldview of the poor - to grow up in a culture that is radically different from the one that dominates the society."

Harrington did such a good job of making the poor seem "OTHER" that when I read his book in 1963, I did not recognize my own forbears and extended family in it. All right, some of them did lead disorderly lives by middle class standards, involving drinking, brawling, and out-of-wedlock babies. But they were also hardworking and in some cases fiercely ambitious -- qualities that Harrington seemed to reserve for the economically privileged.

CULTURE OF POVERTY

According to Harrington, the poor are different from the rest of us, and not just in the sense that they are deprived, disadvantaged, poorly housed, or poorly fed. They feel different, too, think differently, and pursue lifestyles characterized by shortsightedness and intemperance.

According to him, what distinguished the poor was their unique "culture of poverty," a concept he borrowed from anthropologist Oscar Lewis, who had derived it from his study of Mexican slum-dwellers. The culture of poverty gave The Other America a trendy academic twist, but it also gave the book a conflicted double message: "We" -- the always presumptively affluent readers -- needed to find some way to help the poor, but we also needed to understand that there was something wrong with them, something that could not be cured by a straightforward redistribution of wealth. Think of the earnest Christian who encounters a panhandler, is moved to pity by the man's obvious destitution, but refrains from offering a quarter -- since the hobo might, after all, spend the money on booze.

In his defense, Harrington did not mean that poverty was caused by what he called the "twisted" proclivities of the poor. But he certainly opened the floodgates to that interpretation. In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan -- a sometime-liberal and one of Harrington's drinking companions at the famed White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village -- blamed inner-city poverty on what he saw as the shaky structure of the "Negro family," clearing the way for decades of victim-blaming. A few years after The Moynihan Report, Harvard urbanologist Edward C. Banfield, who was to go on to serve as an advisor to Ronald Reagan, felt free to claim that:

"The lower-class individual lives from moment to moment... Impulse governs his behavior... He is therefore radically improvident: whatever he cannot consume immediately he considers valueless... [He] has a feeble, attenuated sense of self."

In the "hardest cases," Banfield opined, the poor might need to be cared for in -

"... semi-institutions... and to accept a certain amount of surveillance and supervision from a semi-social-worker-semi-policeman."

19th Century workhouse where the poor were "institutionalized" and made to labor for their food and shelter under the banner "God Is Good" and "God Is Just."

By the Reagan era, the "culture of poverty" had become a cornerstone of conservative ideology: poverty was caused, not by low wages or a lack of jobs, but by bad attitudes and faulty lifestyles. The poor were dissolute, promiscuous, prone to addiction and crime, unable to "defer gratification," or possibly even set an alarm clock. The last thing they could be trusted with was money. In fact, Charles Murray argued in his 1984 book Losing Ground, any attempt to help the poor with their material circumstances would only have the unexpected consequence of deepening their depravity. [Please see our article, "Racism and Right-Wing Christianity."]

Most Christians have come to believe poverty is caused, not by low wages or a lack of jobs, but by bad attitudes and faulty lifestyles. The poor are dissolute, promiscuous, prone to addiction and crime, unable to "defer gratification," and any attempt to help the poor with their material circumstances will only have the unexpected consequence of deepening their depravity, an attitude that is completely in contradiction to Christ's injunction:

"...If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. (Matthew 19:21)

And -

"Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal ..."

"But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal ..." (Matthew 6:19-20)

So it was in a spirit of righteousness and even compassion that Democrats and Republicans joined together to reconfigure social programs to cure, not poverty, but the "culture of poverty." In 1996, the Clinton administration enacted the "One Strike" rule banning anyone who committed a felony from public housing. A few months later, welfare was replaced by Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), which in its current form makes cash assistance available only to those who have jobs or are able to participate in government-imposed "workfare." In a further nod to "culture of poverty" theory, the original welfare reform bill appropriated $250 million over five years for "chastity training" for poor single mothers. (This bill, it should be pointed out, was signed by Bill Clinton.)

Increasingly, there is NO way out of being unemployed and or under-employed.

Even today, more than a decade later and four years into a severe economic downturn, as people continue to slide into poverty from the middle classes, the theory maintains its grip.
[Please see our articles, "It's Only Going to Get Worse," "A Permanent 30% Unemployment Rate for the United States," "Unemployment Is Much Worse than Is Being Reported" and "The Elites Want High Unemployment."]

If you're needy, you must be in need of correction, the assumption goes, so TANF recipients are routinely instructed in how to improve their attitudes and applicants for a growing number of safety-net programs are subjected to drug-testing. Lawmakers in 23 states are considering testing people who apply for such programs as job training, food stamps, public housing, welfare, and home heating assistance. And on the theory that the poor are likely to harbor criminal tendencies, applicants for safety net programs are increasingly subjected to finger-printing and computerized searches for outstanding warrants. [Again, please see our article, "Making a Crime out of Being Poor and Homeless."]

Unemployment, with its ample opportunities for slacking off, is another obviously suspect condition, and last year 12 states considered requiring pee tests as a condition for receiving unemployment benefits. Both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have suggested drug testing as a condition for all government benefits, presumably including Social Security. If granny insists on handling her arthritis with marijuana, she may have to starve.

What would Michael Harrington make of the current uses of the "culture of poverty" theory he did so much to popularize? I worked with him in the 1980s, when we were co-chairs of Democratic Socialists of America, and I suspect he'd have the decency to be chagrined, if not mortified. In all the discussions and debates I had with him, he never said a disparaging word about the down-and-out or, for that matter, uttered the phrase "the culture of poverty." Maurice Isserman, Harrington's biographer, told me that he'd probably latched onto it in the first place only because "he didn't want to come off in the book sounding like a stereotypical Marxist agitator stuck-in-the-thirties."

The ruse -- if you could call it that -- worked. Michael Harrington wasn't red-baited into obscurity.  In fact, his book became a bestseller and an inspiration for President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. But he had fatally botched the "discovery" of poverty. What affluent Americans found in his book, and in all the crude conservative diatribes that followed it, was not the poor, but a flattering new way to think about themselves -- disciplined, law-abiding, sober, and focused. In other words, not poor.

Concerning the church which will hold sway over the world just prior to Christ's return - i.e., the Laodicean Church - the Bible says:

"And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God;

"I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.

"So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I WILL SPUE (i.e., VOMIT) YOU OUT OF MY MOUTH." (Rev. 3:14-16)

Fifty years later, a new discovery of poverty is long overdue. This time, we'll have to take account not only of stereotypical Skid Row residents and Appalachians, but of foreclosed-upon suburbanites, laid-off tech workers, and America's ever-growing army of the "working poor." And if we look closely enough, we'll have to conclude that poverty is not, after all, a cultural aberration or a character flaw. Poverty is a shortage of money.

  • Barbara Ehrenreich, is the author of Nickel and Dimed.

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God bless you all!

S.R. Shearer
Antipas Ministries

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FINALLY, WE URGE YOU TO DOWNLOAD AND PRINT OUT THE FLYER WE SENT TO YOU RECENTLY.

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Then make copies and take these copies out to the campuses where you live; pass them out; OR if that seems too "daring" for you right now, post them on telephone poles, the sides of buildings, on campus bulletin boards; post them in union halls, in the neighborhoods of the poor and downtrodden, near employment offices, wherever you can.


Once again, we URGE you to read (or re-read):

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APPENDIX 1

The Gospel of Prosperity

There is, of course, no basis in the Scripture for such ideas as the "Gospel of Prosperity" (i.e., that those who are successful financially are ipso facto men of high integrity); though, no doubt, many people (especially Christians) probably think that there is.

It has been repeated in the language of our culture so often that it has now taken on the aura of biblical truth - for example, take a passage like the following, a passage which has been extracted straight out of the folksy lexicon of one of this country's most well-known purveyors of such thinking, Benjamin Franklin -

"Remember that money is of the prolific, generating nature. Money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more, and so on. Five shillings turned is six, turned again it is seven and threepence, and so on, till it becomes five hundred pounds. The more there is of it, the more it produces every turning, so that the profits rise quicker and quicker. He that kills a breeding-sow, destroys all her offspring to the thousandth generation. He that murders a crown (five pounds), destroys all that it might have produced, even scores of pounds. "

Franklin was a Deist; he was no Christian, and the advise he gave was not biblical

This all sounds so biblical - it even has a biblical cadence to it. The use of terms like "beget," and "to the thousandth generation," lends to it a certain biblical veracity. But Franklin was no Christian; he was a Deist. He had, as a result, no real knowledge of the Scripture. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the quote used above has little to do with the Bible - at least insofar as the New Testament is concerned - and everything to do with the "wisdom of this world," which the Bible UTTERLY condemns and TOTALLY rejects,

"For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God." (1 Cor. 3:19)

The fact is, as we have said over and over again on the pages of this website, the New Testament does not hold the rich in any kind of esteem or respect; quite the opposite! - it scathingly condemns them in terms which can only be described as brusque and severe; for example,

"Woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation." (Luke 6:24)

and -

"... a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.

"... It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a [sewing] needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." (Matt. 19:23-24)

Not only that, but what's even more frightening, the Bible says that the pursuit of wealth - if unchecked - will actually drive men into DESTRUCTION and PERDITION -

"For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.

"And having food and raiment let us be therewith content.

"But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. (1 Tim. 6:7-9)

And one should remember here that the above verses (i.e., I Tim. 6:7-9) are directed at a Christian audience; in other words, it's not just unbelievers that wealth has the potential of ruining, but it also has the very real possibility of destroying Christians as well.


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