What does poverty mean in one of the richest countries in the world? The same thing it means everywhere else: social structure. Poverty doesn’t just happen; it is thrusted upon a group. By what? Or more precisely, by whom, you ask? The wealthy. It’s simple class relations argument, right? The rich want to protect their money and the means by which they amass it. What’s new? Here’s the dynamic to notice. If big money wants to guard their coiffers, why then don’t the wealthy spend more of their political efforts and resources on fighting against other wealthy people? That’s the question that should be asked in any blanket acceptance of a class warfare argument. Why aren’t the wealthy fighting the wealthy?
An answer: Identity. Paul Krugman contends, in “The G.O.P.’s War on the Poor,” that identity is what motivates the elites and conservatives in their efforts to dismantle social protections for the poor and working poor. Writing in response to Paul Ryan’s recent declaration that Lyndon Johnson’s 50+ year-old war on poverty was a failure, Krugman shares, “...What motivates these elites is ideology. Their political identities, not to mention their careers, are wrapped up in the notion that more government is always bad. So they oppose programs that help the poor...” .
In Maine, when voters overwhelmingly supported an initiative to expand Medicaid coverage under Obamacare (ACA), their governor, Paul LePage, said that he’d rather go to jail “than see his constituents get health care” . Maine is predominately white. Arguments about the intersection of race and class are and have been central to the issue of class division. Yet, in the case of Maine where 93% of its population is white , it remains starkly clear: Controlling for race, elites still pit themselves against the lower and middle classes.
What’s happening is comparable to the The Rock, Dwayne Johnson, picking a fight with Steve Carell from The Office. And that still would be a fairer fight than 1% of the world owning 99% of the world’s wealth . What’s going on?
In Barack Obama’s commemorative trip to Kenya in honor of what would have been Nelson Mendela’s 100th birthday to launch a new charity initiative with his sister Auma, Obama talked about the societal and technological advantages that lifted over a billion people out of poverty . Not “denying the very real strides that the world has made,” Obama states, “admitting that whatever laws may have existed on the books, whatever pronouncements...previous structures of privilege and power and injustice and exploitation never completely went away. They were never fully dislodged” .
With all of the changes in ideology and identity politics in the post-Obama era, the realization of full equality under the law has a long way to go, and in many cases has been eroded or stalled. Take a look in the recent months of union-busting, stagnant wages and systemic gender barriers in the workplace. And the wealthy like it that way. It’s a hard pill to swallow. The aspirational goal to rise up from the lower rungs of society into the solid middle and upper classes is, at best, mythological. The exceptional cases skew the realities of the rule. The forces that the monied has put in place are to protect their greed.
Again, the question remains: With 1% owning almost everything, we should be seeing them fighting with each other rather than squeezing the last percentage point of wealth. Why are they pitting themselves against the 99%?
Ah, we return to ideology. Could it be that the elite’s idea of themselves and their understanding of where and how real wealth is created makes them protectionist? The rich control and sit on their wealth. The workers make the wealth--are the wealth. No amount of money can protect those at that level from realizing from whom their (syphoned) blessings flow.
[Idealistic Bubble Moment: What shared premise, shared identity can the wealthy and the poor find together that brings them into a more compassionate understanding and advocacy for holistic stewards of the planet’s resources? Could that be the whole point of an American identity?]