“When the rich wage war, it’s the poor who die.” — Jean-Paul Sartre
Since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, there has been much discussion about how to wage an effective, all-out war on poverty; or whether we should wage such a war at all.
It’s a high-minded proposal, this War on Poverty, one that is often quite sincere, even if the ensuing policy decisions turn out to be flawed or counterproductive, riddled by corporate interference or political incompetence.
However, much has changed in Washington since the time of Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and even Nixon.
Beginning in the 1980s, the rhetoric of our politicians began to shift: Instead of a war on poverty, with the intentions of defeating the terrible effects that mass poverty and inequality have on the population and the economy at large, our politicians, with the help of their corporate partners, have waged a war on poor people.
Reagan’s infamous rhetoric is a signal-point for this shift: His derisive takedowns of so-called “welfare mothers” driving expensive cars and living large off of the government (using the example of one woman from Chicago to “prove” his case) while hard-working Americans are being shafted were symbolic of the general shift in public discourse.
Of course, as Reagan and his colleagues knew very well, the “welfare queen” talking-point was over the top and didn’t prove anything he claimed that it did.
But this rhetoric helped to form the foundation of what Paul Krugman and others call Movement Conservatism, a political “revolution” centered around cuts in public spending, deregulation, and privatization, along with huge tax breaks and the establishment of a welfare state for the richest among us.
While Reagan wasn’t the founding father or Movement Conservatism, he helped to bring their wildest dreams to the fore.
Here’s Krugman describing the essence of Movement Conservatism in his book The Conscience of a Liberal:
Money is the glue of movement conservatism, which is largely financed by a handful of extremely wealthy individuals and a number of major corporations, all of whom stand to gain from increased inequality, an end to progressive taxation, and a rollback of the welfare state – in short, from a reversal of the New Deal. And turning the clock back on economic policies that limit inequality is, at its core, what movement conservatism is all about…
Movement conservatism is ultimately about rolling back policies that hurt a narrow, wealthy elite, it’s fundamentally antidemocratic.
The war on poverty thus became, again, a war against poor people, and the scapegoating, racist rhetoric of Reagan, along with his lamentations about Big Government (even though the federal government, in many ways, actually grew under Reagan), became the “intellectual” justification for policies that would otherwise be unjustifiable.
Coinciding with the war on poor people is the war for corporate interests, which was propelled forward in the 1980s and has been raging on virtually unhindered ever since.
Both wars continue today, in many ways even stronger than before.
Austerity-like programs, particularly during financial recessions, has become the status quo policy for dragging an economy out of downturns, even though it is well known that these policies — deep spending cuts, firing of teachers and other public employees, etc. — have repeatedly shown to be ineffective, as even the IMF has conceded. Yet, they continue to prescribe austerity as a condition for debt relief.
The sinister point here is the fact that the poor and working class families most afflicted by these programs are never the ones who caused the recession and other economic issues.
It is, almost invariably, some combination of governmental corruption and private greed.
And, predictably, the poor and working classes never reap any benefits of massive bailouts awarded to financial institutions who contribute most to economic turmoil, as we saw in the United States in 2008.
Where is the bailout for those who lost their jobs in the wake of the 2008 crisis, those whose lives received a devastating and sustained blow?
We’ve learned, since the beginning of the war on poor people, that no one should receive handouts or subsidies; except, of course, for the filthy rich.
Thus, the poor are denied access to decent healthcare, education, and employment, which are undoubtedly a pathway to success.
We see this trend growing at a terrifying rate in Puerto Rico, where hedge fund managers are demanding that the government fire teachers and cut spending on education in order to pay back their debts; a demand not so different from policies seen, on a lesser scale, throughout the United States.
The poor have also experienced the sharp end of the criminal justice system, while rich criminals who often commit crimes far more costly to society walk free.
The drug war can be seen as yet another symbol of the priorities of our current political order: Private prisons profit from an illegal drug racket that allows them to keep their prison cells full.
All the while, addicts go untreated, and they are confined to a perpetual cycle of crime, imprisonment, release, repeat, and subjected to what Michelle Alexander calls “legalized discrimination”: housing discrimination, inability to get a job, inability to vote, and so on.
The nature of the criminal justice system has changed. It is no longer primarily concerned with the prevention and punishment of crime, but rather with the management and control of the dispossessed.
Beyond the war on drugs, Los Angeles has found a new angle from which to fight the war on poor people: criminalizing homelessness.
As Charles Davis observes in his brilliant, unnerving piece for The Intercept, the city is apparently doing all they can to avoid the reasons why people are homeless, and instead are simply locking up those who find themselves suffering the still-lingering aftermath of the massive financial crash of 2008.
Instead of making genuine attempts to strike at the institutionalized practices that keep people down and out, that strip them of access to opportunity and equal treatment, that shame and criminalize them, the corporate sector and our subservient government are working hand-in-hand to perpetuate them further into the future.
The political right, in order to justify this now in-plain-sight war on poor people, resort to the barbaric rhetoric of Social Darwinism: If they, the poor and minorities, wanted to succeed, if they had the ability to succeed, if they had the drive and determination to succeed, they would. But they don’t, so they fail.
The right (and, to be clear, some on the “left”) cannot, of course, admit that the game is rigged against the poor, as that would be an admission that their goal in achieving power is not to help the masses, but to serve their corporate masters.
They cannot admit that this country’s drug policies are absurd and immoral, that they create and perpetuate the very problem they claim to be working to solve.
They cannot admit that they support cuts in social spending because a significant portion of this money goes to poor minorities, to the working class who make wages which are barely enough to sustain themselves, let alone their families. They cannot admit that, by fighting to defund Planned Parenthood, they are carrying out a vicious attack not just on a woman’s right to choose, but on women’s health in general.
They cannot admit that they support tax cuts for the rich because it increases their bottom lines, so they must create fantasies about the rich being job-creators and present tax cuts as a way to increase employment and prosperity.
They cannot admit that the military-industrial complex is a taxpayer handout to the rich, a profit machine for the corporations that cash in on death and destruction.
They cannot admit that every invasion, bombing campaign, “counter-insurgency” battle, and incredible hike in defense spending is not just killing many innocent poor abroad, it is killing the poor at home by depriving the country of resources which could have been used to help them live a dignified life.
As Dwight Eisenhower warned us,
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.
The war against the poor has coincided, as mentioned above, with a war for corporations.
As they continue to infiltrate the political progress, corporations, through their lobbyists, exert immense influence on elected officials, pressuring them to pass laws which allow them to continue plundering the economy, the environment, and the poor.
Further, the welfare state which Republicans often rail against is not the truly significant welfare state in this country.
The really existing and significant welfare state is the welfare state for the rich.
The taxpayer subsidies and bailouts, tax cuts, lack of accountability, and abundance of representation within government all combine to create a state which is not only dedicated to removing the rights of the poor, but to adding influence to the already incredibly powerful corporate sector.
This war, it should be said, is not just a war on poor individuals; it is also a war against the ability of the poor and working classes to organize and fight back against the system that has oppressed them.
A recent Supreme Court ruling in Michigan illustrates this point. The Court has ruled that “right to work” laws apply to public employees as well as employees in the private sector, effectively encouraging the free-rider problem which effectively guts union funding and creates a system in which CEOs can continue to gain at the expense of the working class.
At the end of the day, Republicans love to harp on the fact that the “War on Poverty” hasn’t worked.
The problem with this claim should be obvious: there never was a “War on Poverty.” To be sure, there were many successful battles won, through the New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society and the official declaration of a War on Poverty in 1964, but these successes are being unraveled as I write.
There has been, however, a relentless and brutal war on poor people, using the tools of corporate influence, mass incarceration, and draconian, regressive laws; a war that is ruining the chance of decent survival for millions, not just in the United States, but around the world.