In 1981, Texas Senator Phil Gramm lamented: “We’re the only nation in the world where all our poor people are fat.” It was, to Gramm, clear evidence of how exaggerated the problem of economic hardship in America was, and how horrible the nation’s welfare state had become. Apparently, poor people aren’t really suffering or deserving of much sympathy until their ribcages are showing and their eye-sockets have all but swallowed their eyes. If the poor are fat, it’s not because so many of the cheapest and most readily available foods in poor communities are high in empty calories, sugar and non-nutritional ingredients—or because, in general, the U.S. food supply is overly-processed and unhealthy—but rather, it must be because poor people have it too good and are able to do a lot of fancy eating at public expense.
America’s culture of cruelty has long been fed by this kind of thinking: namely, the belief that the poor and unemployed really aren’t suffering that badly. This “poverty denialism” rests on three claims: first, that America’s poor are fabulously wealthy by global standards and thus, should essentially stop complaining; second, that the poor buy expensive food with their SNAP benefits and have all manner of consumer goods in their homes, which means they aren’t poor in any sense that should cause concern; and third, that large numbers of welfare recipients commit fraud in order to get benefits, and then misuse the benefits they receive. In short, these are not the deserving poor—their pain is not real.
The Fallacy of Global Poverty Comparisons
As for the idea that the poor in America are not really poor, one can almost understand why this notion might seem persuasive even to those who are not particularly callous or cruel. Someone who has worked in the Peace Corps for instance, or the military, or has merely traveled widely and witnessed the kind of abject deprivation that is common in much of the world, where billions of people live on less than a dollar a day, might find this part of poverty denialism compelling. Most all of us have seen at least one if not several late-night infomercials seeking charitable contributions to bring running water and vaccinations to the globe’s poorest inhabitants. By comparison to the poverty highlighted by such efforts, one might not find the moral claims of America’s poor to be particularly pressing.
That said, to diminish the real hardship faced by the poor in the United States, solely because it is usually not as crushing as suffering elsewhere—and I say usually, because in some poor counties of America, conditions and life expectancy actually do rival those in some of the poorest nations on Earth—is neither a logical nor ethical response to that hardship. Even though in absolute terms it is true that America’s poor are not poor in the same way and to the same extremes as say, Sri Lanka’s poor, such a reassurance is likely not much comfort for America’s struggling masses. After all, Americans are notSri Lankans, and they are trying to stay afloat and compete in a society against other Americans. This is why the international standard for evaluating poverty is not simply a set dollar equivalent amount, since poverty in a poor country is by definition different from poverty in a rich country, but is determined by looking at what percentage of a country’s citizens live at half or less of the nation’s median wage. To be at half or less of the median in any society, no matter what that median might be, is to be at a significant disadvantage relative to others in the job market, housing market, in terms of the quality of education your children will likely receive, and in terms of the health care you can access. If the median income is well above your own, you will be effectively priced out of the market for any number of opportunities; as such, even if you are objectively richer than someone in Bangladesh or Ghana, the life you will be able to carve out for yourself in the place you actually live will be far removed from the mainstream there.
This is why the reassurances of economics blogger Catherine Rampell at the New York Times, to the effect that “the bottom 5 percent of the American income distribution is still richer than 68 percent of the world’s inhabitants,” or that “America’s poorest are, as a group, about as rich as India’s richest,” are vapid to a point that would be laughable were the subject matter not so serious. Contrary to Rampell’s breathless excitement at the chart demonstrating these fun facts—which she found in a book by World Bank economist, Branko Milanovic and to which she refers as an “awesome chart” that “kinda blows your mind”—there is nothing awesome, mind-blowing, or even remotely relevant about the statistics in question. Nor are the protestations of Sean Hannity—who assures us that “poor in America is not poor like around the rest of the world”—helpful in understanding the real face of need in the United States.
If anything, to be poor in a rich country, where one’s worth is sadly too often presumed to be linked to one’s possessions (unlike in a poor country where people still know better) is to create a particularly debilitating kind of deprivation. To be poor in a place where success is synonymous with being rich is to find oneself marked as uniquely flawed. To live in a place where wealth is not only visible but flaunted, where the rich make no pretense to normalcy, and where one can regularly hear oneself being berated on the airwaves as losers and vermin and parasites precisely because you are poor or working at a minimum wage job, is to be the victim of a cruelty that poor folks in poor nations do not experience. The poor of Vietnam, for instance, do not have to listen to those who are doing better than they put them down on a daily basis. And why? Because those who are doing better than they, for the most part, are not the kind of people who would bash them for their poverty. The culture of cruelty is not as well developed there. It’s quite an American thing, which unlike most American things we haven’t yet exported to the world. So in a poor nation, the poor are still viewed as belonging to a common humanity, unlike in the United States, where the humanity of poor people, and certainly their right to full citizenship is increasingly under attack.
Ultimately, the politics of comparative suffering is always a losing and amoral proposition. It’s the kind of argumentation that would justify telling a Japanese American who was herded into an American internment camp during World War Two that they have nothing to complain about and should actually be grateful: after all, they could have been in Tokyo when we firebombed it, or in Hiroshima or Nagasaki when we dropped the atomic bombs. It’s the kind of position that would rationalize saying to someone who survived the Holocaust of European Jewry that they had no legitimate complaint against the Nazis, since had they lived in the Soviet Union they may well have perished in Stalin’s gulag (or for that matter, the reverse of this argument). To forward this kind of position is like telling an African American during Jim Crow segregation to get over it, since King Leopold killed roughly ten million Africans in the Congo under Belgian colonialism. In other words, this kind of comparison between the suffering one is currently experiencing and the much greater suffering one could theoretically experience elsewhere lacks all moral and practical relevance.
Not to mention, there is something ironic about this kind of argument coming from elites who regularly push for greater tax breaks so they can have more money with which to “do great things,” or just because they think they’ve earned it. After all, to whatever extent the poor in America are rich by global standards surely the wealthy in America are obscenely, disgustingly, perversely rich by the same; and yet they always seem to want more. They don’t seem satisfied with the kind of wealth that would allow them to literally buy entire countries outright, and which certainly dwarfs the wealth of the so-called rich in less wealthy nations, but yet they have the temerity to lecture poor people about gratitude?
Consider a recent commercial paid for by the Charles Koch Foundation that seeks to remind Americans how good they have it by noting that even if one earns only $34,000 a year, that’s enough to vault one into the top one percent of the world’s population in terms of income. Or consider the remarks of Bud Konheim, CEO and co-founder of fashion label Nicole Miller, who recently said those who are poor or working class in America should stop complaining since their incomes would make them wealthy in India or China. To whatever extent one finds this kind of thinking even remotely persuasive, shouldn’t the logic of such an argument run both ways? Shouldn’t the rich in the U.S. stop complaining about their taxes? The regulations they have to put up with? The minimum wage they have to pay employees? Talk about ingratitude! If they lived in any other industrialized nation the taxes they paid would be higher, regulations would be just as strict or more so, and their workers would have far greater protections and safety nets than in the United States. So when it comes to shutting one’s mouth and being grateful for what one has, perhaps the rich should lead by example.