Blog 122c -Non-Causes of Poverty, Jobs, Welfare Responses

Blog #122c – Non-Causes of Poverty, Jobs, Welfare Responses

Why is there poverty in the United States today?[1] Most anti-poverty policies rely on one or more of four theories about the causes of poverty: the lack of jobs, the shiftlessness of the poor, the changing technological composition of production, or the scarcity of resources to provide for all. None of the four holds up.

We don’t have enough jobs. Not so. “Unless we create more jobs, there will be unemployed and thus poverty,” many believe. But unemployment is low, whatever the weaknesses of its measure, and most poor people are already employed. They already have “jobs,” or at least work, and very often hard work, often part- time, insecure, without benefits, almost always devalued. It is the substandard quality of the jobs we have that undergirds poverty.[2]  Killer jobs, not job killers, are the real problem.

And that so many jobs are substandard is not by accident. Simple economics dictates that employers will always push wages as low as they can: wages to workers are income to employees, but expenses for employers.  Matthew Desmond’s trenchant article[3] provides the figures, and lays out the consequences, in well reasoned and human terms. What’s needed are good jobs, paying living wages, secure over time, organized so as to be manageable along with meeting all the other obligations of complicated lives

They are poor because they are lazy. Not so. “They don’t want to work, or they drink, or are addicted, or mentally ill,” some argue. But, as noted above, most poor are in fact working, but at jobs with less than living wages or unsustainable working conditions Blaming the victims for their poverty will not work

Technological change requires workers with skills the poor don’t have. Yes but. A high school education may be increasingly needed to get a good job, but lack of a high school education is not voluntary for most without it. Getting a good education is not so simple for many, and especially for those that begin poor. Lack of good schools, of health care, of transportation, of housing, of physical security, of social encouragement, all play large roles. There is no evidence that, given the opportunity, poor people are not able to handle work that requires a post-high-school education. The poor may indeed have less education than those better off, but not because they are stupid.

Technological advances should in fact increasingly be able to provide enough for all, so that there would be no such thing as poverty, if they were appropriately socially organized.

There will always be winners and losers. The poor are simply the losers. No longer so. “The poor will always be with us is an old argument. It is increasingly wrong. Our societies are able to produce enough so that no one needs to live without adequate housing, food, clothing, rest, security, or the other things a decent standard of living in a technologically advanced society can produce. The statistics on inequality are clear. Even a modest redistribution from the top 1% would mean that all of the other 99% could live well above poverty levels.

 If none of these four explanations accounts for the widespread existence of poverty today, what does?

Two factors basically explain the existence of poverty today.

First, major real conflicts of material interest underlie poverty.  As pointed out above, simple economics dictates that for-profit businesses will always push wages as low as they can: wages to workers are income to workers, but expenses for for-profit businesses. Thus, poverty benefits powerful economic and political interests, powerful both in establishing economic relations, and in politically establishing governmental policies that further business interests opposing the steps necessary to eliminate poverty.  And,

Second, the necessity of dealing with immediate and critical human problems detracts from confronting these real conflicts, creating an incentive to downplay the existence of these conflicts politically as well as ideologically, even among well-meaning advocates of policies challenging the underlying causes of the conditions whose consequences they seek to ameliorate, so-called anti-poverty and social welfare programs.

So what is to be done to reduce and ultimately eliminate poverty from rich societies such as ours?

 Immediate actions. We have some limited but moderately effective social-mobility programs: minimum wage laws, restrictions on hours of labor and unhealthy working conditions, subsidized health care, unemployment benefits, public financing of elementary education. They need to be adequately and securely funded.[4] They should be championed, expanded, and stripped of any draconian and counterproductive work requirements. But more is needed.

Ultimate goals must be kept on the agenda as ultimately needed, goals such as a real right to housing, to free medical care, to free public education through college, an adequate income should be considered, and seen as obvious governmental functions, just as are police or fire services or streets and highways or sanitation or environmental controls or providing for holding democratic elections or public parks or clean water. So one might consider adopting as ultimate asocial goals for social action the elimination of poverty entirely and the provision of a right to a comfortable standard of living commensurate with what society is already in a position to provide, given a commitment to use it so that its wealth is distributed equitably among all individuals and groups in the society, commensurate with individual and group needs and desires. The even broader goal might be expressed as the just and democratic control of the economy as a whole and in its parts.

Transformational Measures. But to achieve such goals, shorter-term steps also need to be pursued, measures that move in these directions but that do not promise more than are immediately political feasible yet can contribute to meeting long-term goals.. [5] We should not neglect the importance of the poverty fixes we already have. Safety-net programs that help families confront food insecurity, housing unaffordability and unemployment spells lift tens of millions of people above the poverty line each year. By itself, SNAP annually pulls over eight million people out of poverty. According to a 2015 study, without federal tax benefits and transfers, the number of Americans living in deep poverty (half below the poverty threshold) would jump from 5 percent to almost 19 percent.[6]

  1. Improving minimum wage laws. Moving towards the ultimate goal of stablishing a standard of living for all that guarantees not only the necessities of life but at a level consistent with a comfortable and secure standard of living and a level commensurate with the productive capacity of society, appropriately organized to fullfill social needs and enforced well enough to prevent destructive competition- among businesses based on how little they pay their workers.
  2. Strengthening workers’ rights, moving in the direction of fair wages for all, including strengthening requirements for fair labor standards in the work place. Encouraging self- organization workers and poor households along diverse lines needing publii representation..
  3. Expanding the public and non-profits sectors, in the direction of recognizing the benefits of using social contribution as the motivation of provision of goods and services, rather than profit to be made by furnishing them, e.g. in housing, health care, education, recreation, transportation, environmental amenities, creative arts.
  4. Terminating public expenditures whose motivation is economic development and growth for their own sake, and focusing them on their contribution to meeting social goals, including provision of socially desired levels of goods and services. Publicly subsidized job creation as part of and motivated by economic development interests will simply benefit employers unless coupled with living wage and decent working condition requirements. Adding a work requirement to the receipt of social benefits is likewise a painfully ironic was of reducing such benefits to their recipients in a system in which if they do not produce profits for an employer, over and above their wages they will not be hired.[7]
  5. Making the tax system strongly progressive, lower at the bottom, higher at the top, moving towards the broad reduction of inequality and targeting them to the encouragement of socially desirable activities.
  6. Weighing the advantages and disadvantages of imaginatively recasting budget priorities, specifically reducing the military budget, funding anew climate -change-centered civilian conservation corps, increasing foreign aid aimed at alleviating conditions that lead to emigration etc.
  7. Recasting the public thinking about the meaning and values of work, the causes of poverty, the values implicit in alternative approaches to inequality and injustice. [8]

In Matthew Desmond’s eloquent words, “We need a new language for talking about poverty. ‘Nobody who works should be poor,’ we say. That’s not good enough. Nobody in America should be poor, period.”  He’s right.[9]

[1] The official poverty rate is 12.7 percent, based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 estimates. That year, an estimated 43.1 million Americans lived in poverty

 [3] Matthew Desmond, “Americans Want to Believe Jobs Are the Solution to Poverty. They’re Not,” concludes simply: “the able-bodied, poor and idle adult remains a rare creature “Why Work Doesn’t Work Any More,” The New York Times  Magazine, p. 36ff. Available at                   


[5] For a further discussion of the concept of transformative measures, see pmarcuse, blogs 81a-81e, 97, and 99, Towards Transformative Approaches to Unjust Inequality.

[6] Mathew Desmond, op. cit., p. 49.

[7] Mathew Desmond in a factual, tightly argued, and very persuasive article effectively demonstrates the futility of work requirements attached to the receipt of social benefits. Today, 41.7 million laborers — nearly a third of the American work force — earn less than $12 an hour. the New York Times Magazine of September 11, 2018,

[8] Matthew Desmond, op. cit., writes ”No single mother struggling to raise children on her own; no formerly incarcerated man who has served his time; no young heroin user struggling with addiction and pain; no retired bus driver whose pension was squandered; nobody. And if we respect hard work, then we should reward it, instead of deploying this value to shame the poor and justify our unconscionable and growing inequality.”  And Joanna Scuffs, in a rich and provocative article , writes of ”the slipperiness of the term ”work”, from work  as a daily grind into work as “life’s work “oeuvre, art,  the reason you’re here on earth.” The’Linguistic Chamelion” of Work,In These Times, April  2018, [[. 65ff.

[9] Op. cit., p. 9.


Blog # 117a – Boss Trump and the Uses of Humiliation

Blog # 117a – Boss Trump and the Uses of Humiliation

The manipulation of emotions and their consequences plays a major role in the politics of power i n America today. The emotion of humiliation is a weapon in the hands of Boss Trump, strengthening is power by undermining the resistance to it. Their victims in the broader society litter the landscape of political action. The search for dignity, which may be seen as the opposite of humiliation, is partly in response to humiliation by its direct and indirect victims.  The causes and consequences of humiliation need to be understood by those opposing its human cost.

Calling Michael Cohen “incompetent” as a lawyer is an obvious example, meant to denigrate him and undercut anything he might say. It’s become  standard practice for Boss Trump to let loose twitters aimed at humiliating critics of any of his policies or positions by name. It leaves his victims with a choice between an ongoing contest with someone with a wide audience and a sharp tongue, or endure the humiliation in a silence that is in itself humiliating in its necessity, the choice that Attorney General Sessions seems to be making.  And humiliating his critics directly has a wider benefit for Trump: those witnessing his humiliation of his critics themselves become intimidated by what they see, and restrain any inclination to join in. That they feel thus constrained is itself internally humiliating, and a further defensive reaction can be to accept Trump’s side of the story and persuading oneself of its correctness, a many seem to be doing vociferously at Trump rallies and in interviews. They thus justify a potentially humiliating exchange with an apparent show of support, joining Trump’s reputed hard core loyal base.

But humiliation plays a broader societal role, a role of which Trump is a beneficiary but not a principal cause. It often produces the clichéd “white working class,” response of those who may be active in the work force but still feel insecure, underpaid, working below their capacity or deserts. It can be expressed as a claim to a lost dignity, a feeling of helplessness in conceding to bosses’ power, a feeling that has often fueled labor unrest, but that can also lead to a form of inhibition in its expression by an attribution of the result by defenders of the status quo to lack of ability,  lack of education, laziness, the victim’s own conduct, own fault. That can be a humiliating perception, and because so widely accepted and so insistently reinforced by those in power like but not limited to Donald Trump and his direct entourage, it is also likely to lead to humilitation inhibiting fighting back.

uch self-blaming, such created humiliation and the inhibition to which it may lead is often reinforced by well-meaning critics of the reality it reflects. When Hilary Clinton spoke of “the deplorables,” when the Harvard grads or the lucky investors or those in securely positioned armchairs who view the passing parade and “don’t understand how anyone can swallow Donald Trump’s lies or condone his behavior,” they can easily be perceived as looking down on their fellows, as being members of an elite not recognizing the lived experience of the less fortunate. If many of the “white working class” are emotionally humiliated in the social structure of society as they experience it, so are many of “the elite” inhibited from questioning those social structures that have produced their own advantages for fear of having to face some humiliating causes.  The elite may find it hard to accord to others less well stationed than themselves the dignity that those others feel they also have a right to demand.

Humiliation can also lead to a variety of emotional responses. Opioid addiction, gang membership, street violence, domestic abuse, can  all be read as distorted reflections of a search for a dignity which prevailing relationships do not provide for their  victims.  An unconscious and inhibited identification with the boss can play a role, a desire to be oneself a boss, to have all that freedom which the real bosses have and which they are often faulted for exercising. Such responses often create difficulties of understanding in well-meaning efforts to address their causes

Conclusion: If humiliation is a widespread and debilitating emotion, its existence is not an inherent aspect of human nature. If there is humiliation, there are humilitationees and humilitationors.

When Trump humiliates anyone, what he is doing can be explicitly labeled and condemn as such, without long arguments about who’s right and who’s right in the dispute. Boss Trump can be challenged for simply acting like a bad boss, and who likes a bad boss, even if they’re right every now and then. And if those who are being deprived of their dignity by a bad boss or his lackeys, what is going on can be pointed out without reinforcing it by another form of humiliation in how it is pointed out as a necessary lesson the more well-off need to teach their less understanding others. .

  My thanks to Don Bushnell and Thomas Scheff for the provocation that lead to these thoughts                                                                .          They should not be blamed for the result.

Blog #91: Explaining the Election in 10 sentences – preliminary

Explaining the election (in parentheses: to pursue):

1. A critical shift in the organization of the economy post 1968, from industrial to hi-tech capitalism (occupational structures?).
2. Leaving many dependent on the old economy hurt and at a loss, largely the white working class, hold-over racism and sexism accentuated as scapegoats. (foreclosures, evictions, bankruptcies, struggling suburban homeowners – not the really poor, homeless)
3. They reacted with anxiety and an emotional attachment to the past Deep Story (their traditional identity?)
4. They blamed, quite rightly, “the” establishment, although not clear as to its membership, pushed by media etc. to blame “government” (social media, TV, not press?)
5. Trump as politician picked up on this, despite his own membership in the new establishment (motivation? pathological egotism? Business).
6. The anxious white ex-working class built up a deep story, a vision, abetted by Trump and the media that was heavily emotional (shaping identities?)
7. That story, built on real anxiety-inducing experience, mis-interpreted history, and built a psychological/ideological barrier that facts and reason could not penetrate (high school or less education?). Trump offered the charismatic fairy tale leader, believe me, trust me, not them, they have failed you (over 30 years? 8. Since Reagan? since Johnson?)
9. Hillary offered no vision that addressed the grounded anxiety (health care costs? Real unemployment levels?).
10. But Trump’s allegiance as a businessman is and always was to the new elite establishment, and he will unify the Republican Party around it. The holdouts will be those with a personal repugnance to Trump’s personal behavior, which they will swallow. (social circles, clienteles, customers, tenants?)

The Blog #90 series will deal with some of these isssues in more detail.

Blog #90 – The Paradox of Trump and his Followers

What follows is a Work in Progress  attempting to explain a quite  apparent paradox: how is it that Donald Trump, a billionaire real estate developer,  whose claim to fame includes popularizing the slogan : “You’re fired!” can  end up leading a right wing populist following that in fact is plagued by the very  activities he as businessman epitomizes? How it is so many people enthusiastically and vociferously support him, in apparent contradiction to their own interests?

The argument here begins by suggesting that Donald Trump is in fact operationally three different persons, three Trumps (perish the thought, if taken literally!), three entities he has struggled to keep separate: Trump the Individual, Trump the Businessman, and Trump the Political Campaigner. His individual psychological characteristics, idiosyncrasies, if not neuroses, have been extensively examined elsewhere, and are not examined here.

As Businessman, Trump’s activities are a combination of conventional exploitation, underpaying workers in the conventional businesses he operates, principally managing real estate, and an entrepreneurial instinct expanding profit-making by commodifying desires for consumption, for luxury activities providing status over and above actual use. He seeks support as a Political Campaigner for his political ambitions as well as for his businesses, by exploiting conventional aspirations for economic security and social safety, both linked to private enterprise and dreams of wealth accumulation.

As Political Campaigner Trump gains support by latching onto what might be called a Deep Story, an emotionally held ideology and set of values that explains, rationalizes, and legitimates how the world works. Such a Deep Story has long existed as to how the industrialized capitalist world works.  Trump has modified that old Story to proclaim a New version counting on the vulnerabilities of voters and popular media to changes in the economies of the world that have frightened masses of ordinary people seeking assurances that the supposed promises of the old Deep Reality, seemingly vanishing, could be restored quickly and easily by his authoritarian rule. He has used promises of “Making America Great Again” to propagate a new right-populism and a New Deep Story appealing to those susceptible to promises of quick and easy solutions to deeply threatening and hard to understand changes.

Major economic and social developments in the Deep Real Economy have underlain Trump’s success as a Businessman. In these developments profit is derived not primarily from industrial  production but also in the process of its realization in user consumption. The commodification of luxury consumption in which Trump specializes, and the financialization which he is adept at manipulating, is then justified by a New Deep Story resting on a widespread popularly accepted account of how the changed reality works.

I hope in the next week to flesh out the argument here in a series of perhaps six blogs, perhaps as follows

This Blog #90 – The Trump Series: The Paradox of Trump and His Followers

  1. Blog #90a – The Three Trumps: Individual, Campaigner, Businessman
  2. Blog #90b -Trump the Businessman: The Commodification of Luxurious Living
  3. Blog #90c – Trump the Campaigner and his Opposition
  4. Blog #90d – The Deep Realities and The Deep Story of Industrial Capitalism
  5. Blog #90e – The New Deep Realities of the New Economy and its New Deep Story
  6. Blog #90f The Philosophic Explanation of the Persuasive Power of the new Deep Story
  7. Blog #90g The Alternative Reactions to the New Deep Reality: Right, Middle, and Left

****   WORK IN PROGRESS   ****

Blog #81d – Inequality: A Radical Response

Blog #81d – Inequality: A Radical Response

A Radical response, in a traditional fully socialist view, would approach inequality in a quite different way. It would define unjust inequality not in terms of the quantitative mal-distribution of the wealth of society but in terms of the source of that mal-distribution, economically in the exploitation of labor by capital (which includes the maintenance of unemployment to create a “reserve army of the poor” at the bottom to buttress the power of employers), and politically in the oppression of the ruled by the rulers.  The injustice of inequality lies, in the Radical view, not in the quantitative dimensions of inequality, as in Piketty, or simply in the harm to those at the bottom, as in the Liberal view, to be dealt with by anti-poverty programming.The injustice  lies in how the mal-distribution of wealth and incomes came about in the first place — David Harvey formulates it that it was largely acquired  by the dispossession of the 99% by the 1% to begin with. Yet the Progressive view generally focuses simply in the quantitative differences in wealth and power per se, which are self-reinforcing and must be countered together. In the Radical view, by contrast, the injustice stems from the source of those differences: the actions of those at the top in depriving those at the bottom of the share of the common wealth which in a just society they should have.

Taking some of the wealth of the rich and using it for the poor is thus just, but it is not enough; it does not address the source of that wealth, the conduct of the 1% that created the inequality to begin with. Redistribution is a remedy that only ameliorates the consequences after the damage is done; it doesn’t prevent the damage. Ironically, it has similarities to the criminal justice system: it punishes the guilty and compensates the victims, but it doesn’t address the causes of crime.  It is fair, or, indeed, by definition, just, but it assumes the structural arrangements of the society in which it exists, in which exploitation and oppression are legally permitted, in fact essential parts of the system, if subject to some limits.  In the Radical view a revolution is needed really to address the structures that support unjust inequality, including such aspects as the definition and enforcement of property rights in the economic system and electoral arrangements in the political system that limit participatory democracy or render it ineffective. Radically, the argument goes.  A revolution is needed which continually seeks to end exploitation and oppression and regulate the conduct which creates them, going beyond simple amelioration of the unjust inequality which they quantitatively produce.

The Radical response to quantitative  inequality  is to seek it sources in the structures of the status quo, and to pursue an economic as well as political revolution to limit inequality only to just inequality.

The kinds of goals a radical/socialist answer to inequality might lead to might include (for suggestive purposes only!):

  • A guaranteed annual income to all, at a standard commensurate with the real capacities of the productive system, perhaps something above today’s Average Metropolitan Income;
  • Either direct government or non-profit voluntary private responsibility for the production of the goods and services minimally required for that standard of living;
  • Nationalization of all major productive enterprises, with compensation limited to non-financialized values or less;
  • Confinement of profit-motivated activities to minor production of goods and service over and above the necessary , and for research and development above that level;
  • A sharply progressive to confiscatory tax on incomes and wealth over some socially defined ceiling;
  • Education at all necessary social levels public and guaranteed free, above that voluntarily undertaken;
  • Cessation of productions of all munitions;
  • Procedures for fully participatory and democratic decision-making at all levels of public action, with public support for the necessary implementation;
  • Environmental standards set and implemented at levels to maintain fully sustainable levels of desired health for all;
  • Recognition that the unjust inequalities produced by exploitation and oppression are linked together, and must be treated as a whole, and the process of undoing them must be comprehensive in scope and depth;

And, importantly:

  • The issue of unjust inequality would then simply disappear, because, with all having enough for a really fulfilling life and limits established on wasteful excesses of privatized wealth, the incentive to exploit or oppress, would imply disappear, and there would be  no reason for concern s about  comparative incomes or wealth that logically fuel current concerns about inequality.

These are obviously utopian goals, and practically relevant only in so far as they may provide a standard for evaluating the desirability of pursing specific realistically achievable goals. But to thinking through and visualizing alternatives to the existing along the above lines – playing with reality-based alternatives  for an ideal society, as was common in critical parts of human history in the past but has virtually disappeared from today’s intellectual or artistic life, might indeed be a generally  welcome development .

In the context of the present presidential electoral campaign in the United States, no major figure would espouse such goals, but neither would any explicitly defend the level of quantitative inequality that exists today. The more moderate wing of the Republican Party and the more conservative side of the Democratic Party espouse a Liberal approach, differing from each other mostly in the extent of its implementation. The further left voices in the Democratic Party lay claim to a Progressive response, in rhetoric sometimes similar to that of the Radical, but pragmatically toned down, so that revolution is spoken as reform of the political system, not in basic economic structures.

Politically, on the electoral campaign the view on the Republican side is conservative and the existing inequality, if acknowledged at all, is not seen as a major problem.

On the Democratic side the Liberal position is widely seen as desirable in principle but subject to a touchy debate to be resolved by compromise in realistic political terms;

The Progressive position is seen to have significant popular support, but unlikely to gather enough political momentum to be implementable to the extent necessary;

The Radical position is not seriously considered, however idealistically it may be discussed at the fringes of present realities, and espousing it may in fact weaken even serious Liberal and Progressive attempts at change.

A different response is needed. Blog # 81e – Other Forms of Radical Responses: Towards a Transformative Approach to Unjust Inequality, will suggest a possible step toward such a different response.


This blog is one of a set of five dealing with Unjust Inequality:

Blog #81a: What’s the Problem? Not Just Inequality

Blog #81b: Inequality: What’s the Answer? Economic or Racial? Conservative or Liberal-Clinton?

Blog #81c – From Clinton Liberal to Sanders Progressive Responses

Blog #81d – Inequality: A Radical Response

Blog #81e. – Towards Transformative Approaches to Unjust Inequality.