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Peter Laarman is executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting, a network of activist individuals and congregations headquartered in Los Angeles.
Yesterday another coalition of center-right Christians calling itself the Poverty Forum rolled out its multi-point plan aimed at lessening the toll of poverty in America. The Forum’s primary organizers, Sojourners founder Jim Wallis, former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, and PolicyLink founder Angela Glover Blackwell, claim that their approaches to key issue areas are embraced across the religious spectrum from left to right. The problem is that the spectrum they are talking about runs the gamut from A to B, if I may borrow Dorothy Parker’s apt formula. Conservatives on Poverty Forum issue panels were anything but shy in proclaiming their views victorious.
Brent Orrell, a conservative apparatchik long embedded in the Bush Administration’s faith-based operations, captured the essence of the new Forum’s anti-poverty platform thusly: “this package, when taken as a whole embodies the best and most timeless conservative ideas and principles. It focuses on the traditional family as the seedbed of virtue and education and economic participation.” Perhaps more revealing, Chuck Donovan of the Family Research Council beamed his own hearty approval for the work in this wise: “This is an opportunity to get attention for some ideas that might not be taken as seriously if they came directly from the Family Research Council.”
In fairness there are some significant policy changes in the package put forward by the centrists, but there is notably more emphasis on inculcating and reinforcing traditional values: changing destructive behaviors, for example, and focusing on family thrift (here rhetorically upgraded to “asset development”).
Only a churl would dismiss the Poverty Forum’s issues as unworthy. The problem is that they are so small-bore, so cautious, and so very deferential toward a regnant conservative ideology. We can’t really grasp the prophetic dimension that’s missing in the Poverty Forum without understanding something of the genesis and ubiquity of that conservative worldview.
What would values conservatives do without dysfunctional poor families?
For those too young to remember, there was in fact a brief shining moment some forty odd years ago when the public at large and the government of the United States recognized systemic and racialized poverty as a problem worth attacking directly. This was a moment of what liberation theologians would callconscientizacion. It grew out of the cresting civil rights struggle but was also ignited by some path-breaking journalism that drew attention to the hollows of pure misery in Appalachia and the harvest of shame enacted in California’s farm fields. While it was clumsy and crude for President Johnson to declare “war” on poverty, it is equally clear that his heart was in the right place on this–and that he really believed a massive public effort was required.
I mention this breakthrough moment so as to underscore the ideological and cultural sea change that now has most Americans once again thinking of poverty as a little bit cyclical, a little bit behavioral, not so much racial, and shameful only insofar as people should be kind of ashamed for remaining poor in view of all the help that is out there and available.
The sea change in how poverty is viewed reflects the triumph of a conservative ideology that long ago crossed party lines. I awakened fully to the bipartisan extent of the obfuscation and blame-shifting when I realized that the bulk of new philanthropy going on in New York in the 1990s–an interventionist philanthropy very much focused on support for the deserving poor–was being initiated by committed Democrats. One fast-rising new charity raised staggering amounts from hip young Democratic money managers at its annual galas. It spelled out its approach in big bold letters for all to see: no, we do NOT fund social change–but thanks very much for asking.
In this context the Gingrich-Clinton welfare “reform” of 1996 came as but the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace that had disappeared systemic poverty from the national consciousness, or had at least converted it from being the product of injustice and oppression to being instead the collective expression of a whole lot of bad individual choices made by the poor themselves.
We were back, in other words, to a moralizing Victorian sensibility. In most US cities, welfare caseload reduction and not the reduction of actual suffering and want became the measure of virtuous public policy. Welfare-to-work transition support operations functioned as the modern equivalent of Victorian workhouses, designed to instill exemplary behaviors like punctuality and better personal hygiene and grooming. Tough-on-dependency politicians, like New York’s Rudy Giuliani and Wisconsin’s Tommy Thompson, were lionized in the big media while the voices of dissidents like Derrick Bell and Jonathan Kozol–people who actually paid attention to the worsening lives of the poor–were marginalized and dismissed.
This new Victorian consensus around poverty only hardened during the Bush years when the specter of terrorism gave us something else to worry about and when easy credit also helped mask the persistence of hardcore impoverishment. We were momentarily shocked (shocked!) to discover its persistence–and its persisting racialized character–in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. But for most that discovery merely reinforced the point that miserables like those Crescent City wretches should be dispersed and the evidence of their prior condition simply razed.
So many torn limb from limb–yet no enemies among the overprivileged?
Now, of course, poverty has come back into the public consciousness in a big way. This time the specter of poverty is haunting us–the hardworking middle-class folks being wiped out by the financial meltdown, the foreclosure tsunami, confiscatory health care expenses, and a plummeting job market. Along with fear, there is real anger in middle-class suburbs about the crimes and betrayals of the best and the brightest who ran the casino economy from their well-appointed Wall Street aeries–ran it right into the ground, that is–while parachuting to soft landings themselves.
But if you listen to the official talk of the nation–the talk of the politicians and pundits–you will not hear much of that populist anger. Intermittently, and for the TV cameras, you might be able hear a Sen. Dodd or a Sen. Schumer raise their voices in indignation over the predations and the self-dealing of the moneychangers. But then you remember that this is the same Chris Dodd who accepted two “courtesy” mortgages from Countrywide’s Anthony Mozillo, and that this is the same Chuck Schumer who backed Wall Street deregulation as he was collecting fat checks from the Street to fill the coffers of his Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.
Cross posted from Religious Dispatches