We live in a divided country. A lot of people think that this division is about progressive vs conservatives. But the reality of the situation is that perception is a mask for the real and primary dividing factor, wealth vs poverty.
There are an awful lot of narratives about what poverty means and relative poverty in our society. A lot of people think that the poor just aren’t saving well or that the government already spends too much on social safety nets. The problem is, these arguments are political folk tales, not based on science or evidence. The reality is so much more complicated than these simplistic arguments that surround our notions of economic purity.
What do I mean by purity? Well, consider this video surrounding how much of the western world breaks down it’s notions of right or wrong, black and white. Anthropology Shorts: Mary Douglas Purity and Danger
We like easy, clear categories, to oversimplify elements of life and society and reinforce that with notions of morality that manifest in guilt, shamming, gossip and of course media. These notions of either/or logic (known in some social sciences as a false dichotomy) prevent us from understanding the actual situation on the ground. This leads to something called, perceived truth vs ground truth.
Perceived vs Ground Truth
Perceived truth is what we think is happening, or what ideally is going to happen when we institute new policy or laws or ideas in the real world. Ground truth is when that plan, or policy, or cultural norm actually impacts the lived experiences of human beings. For example, the idiom, “A rising tide lifts all boats”, is a perceived truth that comes out of the 1980s in economics. It’s the idea of trickle down economics and neoliberalism, that if you deregulate economics, empower companies and increase privatization, everyone will benefit. This is a perceived truth. With more than four decades of these polices, the truth on the ground shows us something different (Check out this article on Why Trickle Down Economics Doesn’t Work). The lived experience of working people is much different than the claim. They have not benefitted from these policies and in fact just the opposite. The ground truth is, these policies hurt most Americans while lining the pockets of those already in power. In fact, we now have the highest rate of inequality since records began.
Social Mobility, The American Dream, and Bootstraps.
What about social mobility and the notion that, given hard work, someone can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps? The Bootstraps idea is another example of perceived truth, something that the media often touts via anecdotal evidence, that highlights the exception and not the rule. This is a media system that is largely owned by private firms, have a vested interested in continuing the narratives of the people who own them and fund them. Many of these big companies own a large portion of the media system and thus you have limited narratives that are available for people to consider. One of the creepiest examples of this concentration of media is the script that Sinclair forced about 200 of their local news broadcasts to read.
Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman highlighted the relationship between these narratives in the media and the control of what the media can say through five major filters in their famous book, Manufacturing Consent. The book examines the structure of large scale media. As it turns out, Media narratives actually make the situation of working people worse by casting perceived truth as a form of ultimate truth. Scholar Peter Drier highlights the problems of media systems and perceptions of poverty in his article, How Media Compounds Urban Problems and notes that the media often makes poverty worse by highlighting the exceptions and not the normal experiences of people on the ground. Narratives about welfare queens and troubled youth lead the news, while communities working together to solve issues or what it looks like to be poor are largely ignored. The job of the media is to hold those in power accountable, not to trumpet their narratives and further the suffering of the average citizen.
The thing about bootstraps is, not only is social mobility extraordinarily difficult, but it’s not even uniquely American. It turns out, that data doesn’t support that social mobility is as common in the United States as we think. Yes, there is an American Dream, but not only is it rare, but many of the other developed nations have much higher rates of social mobility, and much lower rates of inequality. Countries like Canada, have near double our social mobility. If your a podcast listener, Radiolab did a great job of breaking down the numbers on social mobility as well as debunking some of the myths surrounding poverty as well. Check it out here.
It’s expensive to be poor…
So often I hear, well if the poor were better at saving, then they wouldn’t be poor. The problem is, it’s expensive to be poor. You may have seen this meme going around social media at some point.
Is this perceived truth or ground truth? In this case we know it’s ground truth. That on the ground, it’s more expensive to be poor then middle class. This was very effectively demonstrated in the book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. The fact of the matter is, simple little things like not having a washer and dryer in your house mean that you have to spend more time and money to accomplish simple tasks. If it was just one of these things, it wouldn’t amount to much extra labor or expense, but as Barbara Ehrenreich demonstrates in her book, every Nickel and Dime adds up and adds to the weight of extra time and money that poor people have to spend. Living paycheck to paycheck isn’t just about saving, often it is impossible to actually put away money. In fact, nearly 40% of Americans are one emergency away from disaster and homelessness.
As a father, and even with a graduate degree, I’ve experienced events like this first hand. I have skipped meals to be sure my children eat. I’ve gone long periods of time without seeing a dentist or a doctor because I can’t afford it, which could cost me a lot more later (i.e. the meme above). I have to prioritize everything I do to figure out how to pay bills and keep food on the table. Many poor families are far more disciplined about money than I and working with communities and doing first hand research, I’ve notice that the idea the poor are lazy or unable to manage their money is not only false, it’s actively harmful. For example, when I was in graduate school, I was forced to dumpster dive for three months when I only had $1 a day for food after bills. The reality is, sometimes there is no way to save and even when you do, surprises happen and you suddenly find your savings drained because your car breaks down (because most poor people cannot afford a car that is newer and less likely to break down) or perhaps you get sick and can’t afford the copays because the insurance industry is all part of systemic poverty. Which leads to the next point…
Poverty as a System and Structural Violence
Poverty is a system, a structure in society that is not created on accident. It has little to do with a lack of work ethic or training and so much more to do with how the game is rigged.
Anthropologists introduced a concept called Structural Violence way back in the 1960s. It is the idea that systems of power do everything they can to maintain that power. Anthropologist Paul Farmer wrote a 2004 article titled An Anthropology of Structural Violence. In it, he details how altering history or hiding large portions of it, allow for the continuance of a system that significantly oppresses the people of Haiti. He shows that the large problems they have in arenas like health care are a direct result of wide systemic problems.
The reality of the situation is that the people of Haiti were purposely disenfranchised by the dominant European and American powers because their independence in 1804, came as a result of the a massive slave revolt. Wanting to make sure that their own slaves didn’t get any ideas, France, England, and the newly formed United States spent the next few decades (the United States still intervenes and did so for much of the cold war) intervening in the politics, economics and government of Haiti to ensure that it did not become a successful nation. Much of modern poverty is like this, it was created by those in power and is maintained by those in power. As I discussed in my YouTube video on the origin of the concept of Race, even the very notion that we have different races was created in the 17th century as a means to divide and conquer a diverse group of poor in the American colonies after Bacon’s Rebellion to prevent further uprising.
The original idea of the board game Monopoly was to teach people how these structures work. The linked article highlights the history of the game but also gives people a glimpse at what happens with deregulated greed. One player ultimately ends up controlling the board while everyone else struggles and eventually loses. Poverty is no accident, it’s a rigged game. Two books highlight real world poverty and why such insane levels of inequality are a terrible idea. The first Why We Can’t Afford the Rich draws on a mountain of academic research to demonstrate how these systems function and why philosophies like neoliberalism and libertarianism are actually dangerous for society and lead to economic collapse. The second book Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism further explores these problematic assumptions about perceived truth vs ground truth and how this manifests around the world. If you are interested specifically in what happened when water became privatized you can read this article by Michael Goldman.
Poverty is no accident, it’s a structure. And while personal accountability is important the structure of a society can make change incredibly difficult for some, and much less for others. You may have seen this meme on the right traveling around the internet as well.
This meme is a simple and quick way to understand exactly how these systems work. Yes, hard work is a good thing. Yes, personal responsibility is a vital thing. But if the hardest working, most dedicated people in America were paid based on their work, it would be the janitors, the farmers, the construction workers, the teachers, and others like them who put all of their time and energy into the work who would do the best in society. We don’t really value a hard day of work, we value a false ideal of what work should look like and who is doing it. We are stuck in the perceived truth, the almost spiritual platonic forms of perception about work and wealth, and not what’s actually happening on the ground for the lived experience of many Americans. As long as we value perceived truth over real world evidence (and not anecdotes based on the extremes) we will face significant division and conflict. We must study and understand the structures of our society or risk further economic collapse and the suffering of many.