Other Perspectives

Chapter Thirteen:
Excuses and More Excuses

Many voices automatically oppose any government program to create jobs and boost incomes directly. The forms of argument vary, but the essential thrust remains the same. These critics argue that the federal government should not expand economic opportunity because, they say, lack of economic opportunity is not the problem. Rather, they attribute poverty and economic insecurity to other factors. These arguments need to be fully examined. Building support for an economic-security movement requires being able to counter these claims, six of which are considered in this chapter.

A. Blaming the Poor

"Poverty is a moral problem," Representative Dick Armey, a major Republican leader in the House, declared on the McNeil/Lehrer Newshour in 1995, arguing that poverty is caused by poor people engaging in lazy and irresponsible behavior. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, with his characteristic flair, echoed the same theme, "I am prepared to say to the poor, 'You have to learn new habits. The habits of being poor don't work.'" Marvin Olasky, an economist who has been embraced by the Republican party, stated on the McNeil/Lehrer Newshour in 1995, "All of the poor can lift themselves up by the bootstraps if they only make the effort." Ronald Reagan, while President, stated:

What we have found in this country, and maybe we're more aware of it now, is one problem that we've had, even in the best of times, and that is the people who are sleeping on the grates, the homeless, you might say, by choice.
When asked in a 1988 poll "which is more often to blame if a person is poor - lack of effort on his part, or circumstances beyond his control," 39 percent of the public answered "lack of effort." Considering the avalanche of mythology on this issue, it is surprising that only 39 percent cited "lack of effort."

This prejudicial stereotype against the poor also seeps into the thinking of those who only blame many of the poor for their situation. For example, syndicated columnist Robert J. Samuelson, an economist, wrote:

The causes of crime and poverty are, in this sense, curiously disconnected from the economy. Many of the poor can't do, can't find or don't want the jobs that are available to most Americans.... These problems won't magically recede with a burst of economic growth (italics added).
Samuelson thus asserts that lack of desire is a major reason for poverty.

Proponents of "go get a job" as the solution to poverty typically ignore that most of the poor are too young, old, or disabled to fit their stereotype (see Chapter Four). Secondly, it may be true that any one able-bodied adult selected at random could lift himself/herself out of poverty by being more disciplined, persistent, and/or energetic. But, paradoxically, what works for the individual may not work for society-as-a-whole. Even if increased effort will enable any particular individual to avoid poverty, this does not mean that all 43 million "working-age" adults living in poverty would find employment if all of them suddenly became workaholics. There aren't enough jobs.

If all of these 43 million poor adults began seeking employment tomorrow with the greatest of effort, most of them would get nowhere. It might work for any one poor person; but there is no way it would work for all, or even most, of the poor. "Go get a job," therefore, is no solution to poverty in America. To say all of the poor can lift themselves out of poverty is grossly misleading, even if it is true that any able-bodied poor person can do so.

Consider this analogy. Imagine that 150 people live exactly one mile from a bomb shelter that has room for only 117 people. Imagine that these people routinely practice running cross-country to the bomb shelter and that some people practice more consistently than do others. Imagine that the air-raid siren goes off, signaling an imminent nuclear attack. Now, in a certain sense, it is correct to say, "running to the shelter is a solution." To say that it is wise to run early and hard, and that those who practiced most beforehand and put in the greatest effort to get to the shelter deserve credit for their effort, also makes sense. It is also true that, when the bombs fall, if the forty-three who don't make it into the shelter had received more education and training prior to the attack, many of them would have been able to survive.

But does it make sense to blame the forty-three who didn't make it to the shelter for their predicament? Does it make sense to say that they perished in the attack because they were stupid or lazy? Does it make sense to say that "the solution" is to get more people to practice running to the shelter? Being afflicted with poverty is much the same as being destroyed by a bomb in this imaginary situation. More effort on the part of the poor is no more a solution to poverty than running harder to the shelter would be a solution to nuclear annihilation.

Economic opportunity is relatively fixed, much as the space in a bomb shelter is fixed, for the federal government is committed to do whatever is necessary to maintain a high level of unemployment.

Lack of opportunity is demonstrated by regional fluctuations in unemployment. From time to time, different parts of the country experience dramatic increases and decreases in unemployment, caused by factors such as a surge in global oil prices which hurts oil-producing regions, or a drop in military spending which hurts regions with large military contracts. The number of jobs in Boston, for example, increased by 8 percent in 1989, decreased by more than 6 percent in 1991, and increased by almost 4 percent in 1994, whereas Dallas witnessed an increase in jobs throughout that five year period. These sudden changes in employment levels clearly are not caused by changes in the motivation level of the local labor force or their moral fortitude. Likewise, the recent upsurge in homelessness in this country since the early 1980s has been caused by an increase in unemployment, a decrease in average wages, cutbacks in public-income assistance, and a loss of low-income housing throughout the country - not by some shift in motivation among low-income people or cataclysmic moral corruption.

In 1993, nearly 25 percent of high school graduates who did not go to college were unemployed by October - compared with 21 percent in the 1980s and 16 percent in the 1970s. Those who did find work were receiving lower wages than was the case in the 1970s. Increasingly, college graduates are taking jobs for which a college degree is not required - jobs that previously would have gone to high-school graduates. One high-school senior, working part-time as a waiter, expressed the fear of many of his peers: "I don't want to be a bottom man. I want to be something you can look up to. But a lot of people come out of college with no place to go."

Statistics show that a job ad in a newspaper will often draw a thousand applicants. On one day, November 11, 1993, more than 10,000 people in Detroit picked up applications for some 4,000 jobs that did not yet exist, even though they knew that the casino where they hoped to work might never open. When the Chicago River broke through a tunnel and flooded downtown basements, the city easily hired welfare mothers at $10 per hour to shovel out the slime. "They donned yellow gloves and smiles and they walked home in the afternoon as if they'd won the lottery. They wanted all the muck they could get." The intense competition for jobs is reflected in a study of the fast-food industry which found "the ratio of job applicants to hires is about 14 to 1." More than half of the fast-food workers surveyed in Central Harlem had completed high school and averaged more than three prior jobs per worker. Professor Katherine S. Newman of Columbia University concluded:

Jobs once considered solely the province of high school dropouts or young people starting out in the work world are now dominated by workers in their mid- and late-20s who are trying to support families on $4.25 an hour.
Joel F. Handler, author of The Poverty of Welfare Reform, has cited a 1989 analysis of the job market in New York City and found that there were only 57,000 job vacancies for 770,000 "economically disadvantaged adults," as summarized by The New York Times columnist Bob Herbert.

A number of studies confirm that most of those who are commonly dismissed as "unemployable" want to work and will work if given a decent opportunity. For instance, a federally-funded pilot project in Chicago called Step Up hired 300 public-housing residents to learn construction trades by participating in a strict 18-month training program. Many of the trainees had not completed high school or ever held a job. Even though the prospects for employment in the construction industry were uncertain, after more than a year, two-thirds of the trainees were still on the job. Step Up officials believe that many of those who were dismissed, mostly for absenteeism, learned a valuable lesson and would likely be more reliable if given another opportunity. With better prospects for permanent living-wage employment, trainees would presumably be even more motivated to stick with the program.

Another study demonstrates that effective programs can assist homeless persons in obtaining and holding down jobs. Homeless persons are among the most difficult people to place in permanent jobs. In addition to overcoming the trauma of having been homeless, unique complications such as the lack of secure housing and proper clothing often interfere with homeless people keeping a job once they are employed. The hardship of being homeless also leads to a greater than average tendency towards substance abuse, which can take time to conquer. Nevertheless, in a report issued to Congress in early 1992, an independent consultant, James Bell found that more than half of the participants in the federally-funded Job Training for the Homelessness Project were still on the job 13 weeks after being hired. With better employment opportunities and more sustained support, that percentage could be increased.

The non-working and underemployed poor are much like the rest of the population. They don't want to rely on welfare or charity; they want to be self-sufficient and they want to earn enough to provide for themselves and their children. Concerning those on welfare, Joel Handler has concluded:

...the vast majority of welfare recipients do not lack a work ethic. Empirical work demonstrates ... that, against considerable odds, the majority of welfare recipients work while they are on welfare, trying over and over to find and keep jobs, and that, in fact, the majority do leave welfare through work.
Despite these facts, standard descriptions of the poor often claim that poverty is due to a personal deficiency on the part of the poor. In his first major statement concerning homelessness in America, for example, President Bill Clinton, prompted by the death of a homeless woman on the steps of a federal office building, reinforced this mythology. After referring to homeless persons he routinely encountered while jogging around the White House (with whom he claimed to have "developed a kind of friendly relationship"), President Clinton said:
I wish to goodness they didn't have to spend the night there. But I also know that there are other factors at work inside the minds and hearts of those people which make some of them reluctant to come in and which make it impossible for them to stay in.
As The New York Times said in reporting these comments, Clinton "sent a mixed message" with his comments. Although the President qualified his remarks by referring only to "some" of the homeless, the overall thrust of his statement about "reluctance" echoes Reign's "homeless ... by choice" quote and undercuts pressure for federal action.

The historical record associated with World War II demonstrates that lack of opportunity is the essential problem. From 1926 to 1939, the number of private-sector jobs in the United States held fairly steady at about 45 million, with a drop to about 40 million in the early 1930s during the Great Depression. With the advent of World War II, however, the country decided that it was important to employ everyone and proceeded to do so. By 1943, with private business booming due to the war, the number of private-sector employees had increased by 10 million to a total of 55 million, and another 10 million Americans served in the Armed Services. Total employment thus increased by almost 50 percent within only four years. Consequently, homelessness in America disappeared as a visible problem and official unemployment was basically eliminated (that is, reduced to less than two percent, a level that is unavoidable as people switch jobs).

At the only time in its history when this country made a clear and unequivocal commitment to creating employment opportunities for all, the poor, the unemployed, and the homeless went to work. Unfortunately it took a war to make the point that the poor are not to blame for poverty. With a comparable federal commitment to meet social and environmental needs, full employment can also be achieved with non-military spending.

B. "Welfare Dependency"

President Clinton, most politicians, and the corporate media constantly claim that "welfare dependency," or "welfare as a way of life," is a major problem. President Clinton has made this alleged problem a major element in his political strategy. According to this point of view, since the problem is dependency, the solution is for individuals to overcome their weakness - just as alcoholics must resolve to control their drinking. From this perspective, poverty is a psychological problem resulting from society tempting the poor with "easy money." This analysis often avoids blaming the poor. In fact, these critics often claim to have great sympathy for those they picture as victims.

But the analogy is false. Alcoholics drink because they want to drink and choose to drink. When alcoholics decide to stop drinking, they can do so, especially with relevant social support. There is no objective barrier in the real world directly interfering with alcoholics becoming sober.

In contrast, most welfare recipients do not want to be on welfare; they prefer holding down a living-wage job. But finding a job that pays enough for child care and health care as well other necessities is extremely difficult and often impossible. The external world directly interferes with welfare recipients becoming self-supporting. Thus, both in terms of subjective attitude as well as objective barriers, welfare recipients and alcoholics experience fundamentally different realities. Moreover, alcoholism becomes self-destructive in most cases, whereas receiving welfare is a way to cope, not a form of suicide. Welfare recipients tend to be strong, intelligent human beings struggling to survive under extremely difficult conditions. Given their circumstances, they are successful. For these reasons, the normal rhetoric about "welfare dependency" is misleading.

C. Trashing the Schools

The constant emphasis on more education and training as a supposed solution to poverty is another way to divert attention away from economic realities. The main reason for poverty, according to this theme, is inadequate education on the part of the poor. The best solution for poverty, therefore, is improved education. In Nathan Glazier's words, "the common man's view (is that) education is the best single available route to overcoming poverty."

The following bits of information illustrate this view:

Bush said he wanted to be the "Education President," but didn't follow through. Clinton is picking up where Bush left off and seems to mean it. He and Labor Secretary Robert Reich have poured forth a never-ending barrage of claims about education-and-training being a panacea for future generations. For example, in his June 13, 1995 live address to the nation in which he embraced the Republican plan to balance the budget by cutting government services substantially, Clinton claimed, "Without the education to get good jobs, [working people] can't make it in today's America." This grossly false statement overlooks the fact that millions of workers manage quite well without the advanced education he promotes relentlessly. The Holy Grail of "higher education" is both a myth and a conscious insult to those who don't have it.

As Milton Schwebel wrote in The Nation:

[T]oday's job market offers little hope of good jobs for perhaps one-third of high school graduates. Working adults know that the vision of a satisfactory career was a driving force in their education. What vision that will give meaning and purpose to their studies do today's inner-city children have?
Most commentary on education overlooks this central question raised by Schwebel: what is the impact of the economy on motivation? Far too many students know that the odds are stacked against them. The economy dictates that a large percentage of the workforce is going to lose out. Low-income students, especially if they are also persons of color subject to discrimination, understand that their chances in the labor market are considerably less than those of their more advantaged peers. Under these circumstances, increased effort can easily lead to disappointment. Therefore, in a certain sense, "apathy is a solution," as the detective played by Morgan Freeman in the movie, Seven, insists. The result is widespread lack of hope. In a review of The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons For America From a Small School in Harlem by Deborah Meier, Joseph Featherstone sums it up well: "...the big problem in U.S. education ... was of course not 'mediocrity,' as we were often told, but rather the lives of poor kids." With our schools today, students who are motivated to learn, can. And with the best of schools, students who aren't motivated, won't learn. Without a massive expansion of economic opportunity, social conditions will suppress motivation and stunt efforts to improve schools.

Improved schools won't come close to solving our economic difficulties, for schools are not the root cause of those difficulties. Even with all the problems that many school districts face, this country is still remarkably well-educated. American workers are the most productive in the world. Except in health care, there is no shortage of skilled workers. The overall technical-degree attainment by the American workforce is the best in the world. Only Belgium and Finland exceed the percentage of 17-year-olds enrolled in school. Private businesses apparently find little need to compensate for poor basic schooling, for 90 percent of the money they spend on training is devoted to college graduates and skilled workers. The high-school completion rate, among the best in the world, is 85 percent and increasing. This country already has the world's highest percentage of workers with college degrees and the percentage continues to grow, even though 20 percent of them work in jobs for which a college degree is not required. The Commission on the Skills of the American Work Force found that even relatively uneducated workers can quickly learn the skills required for most jobs, even in modern and sophisticated factories.

Nevertheless, only the United States suffered a decline in real wages among college-educated workers and an increase in inequality during the 1980s. If education were the magic bullet it's made out to be, workers should have done better than they did during the last twenty years as their level of education improved.

Economist Lester C. Thurow recently offered the following critique of the myth that education is a panacea:

[T]he old remedy for lower wages - more education - no longer works. True, wages of males with only a high school education are falling faster than the pay of those with college degrees. But investing in a college education doesn't get one off the down escalator and onto an up escalator - it merely slows one's descent.
Since 1987, however, even this advantage of more education is missing. David R. Howell, management professor at The New School for Social Research, reports that during this period the magnitude of declines in real pay for college-educated workers "was not greatly different from that experienced by new workers with just a high school degree." Another indication that education is no cure-all is the fact that even though African Americans, relative to whites, have greatly improved both their high-school completion rates and their scores on standardized tests, their average wages have fallen more than those of whites.

Our schools do need improvement and we can improve them. Many of the new entry-level public-service jobs proposed here, for example, can be teacher-aides positions and other jobs that can help enhance public education. We can equalize spending across districts and schools. And serious attention to the achievements of the Coalition of Essential Schools could also immediately benefit our schools. As summarized by Joseph Featherstone in a review of The Power of Their Ideas by Deborah Meier, the key principles of this reform movement are:

But politics is the art of "putting first things first" and the premise of this book is that nothing on the nation's political agenda is more important than guaranteeing economic security. Since resources are limited, we need to concentrate on directly creating jobs and increasing incomes until we establish economic security for all. The argument here is that increases in federal spending should initially be devoted primarily to establishing economic security. Thereafter, we can better address other issues, such as improving schools.

A program to guarantee economic security needs to include only what is necessary to achieve that goal. Neither a high-school diploma nor any particular degree of schooling should be a requirement for obtaining a living-wage job; a job should be guaranteed everyone regardless of their level of education. More education and training should be a means to advancement, not a necessity for survival. Thus, there is no necessity to include improved education in a program to establish economic security.

Resisting the onslaught of propaganda about education as a panacea is also important because such propaganda reinforces the notion that the major problem is personal: that people are poor because they didn't make the effort to get enough education. The time President Clinton, for example, takes to fight for improved education takes time away from fighting for jobs. No one should be surprised that he backed off on his economic stimulus package during his first few months in office. He telegraphed his priorities early on: education, education, and more education. Almost half of President Clinton's proposed spending increases early in his term were dedicated to education and training, compared to only 10 percent for urban development.

Reporting on an important regular meeting of finance ministers from the world's largest economies in 1994, The New York Times opened its article as follows:

Government officials from the United States and other leading industrial nations agreed today that the only way to create more good jobs in the face of rapid technological change was to upgrade education, particularly for those who are least skilled. The final statement, read by Lloyd Bentsen, Secretary of the Treasury, at the close of the two-day international jobs seminar stressed this (italics added)....
This emphasis on education, to the point of saying that it is the "only" solution, is one side of the coin; the other is the neglect of the need for jobs.

Half or more of those with only a high-school diploma are poor, according to the definition of poverty used here, while very few of those with a bachelor's degree live in poverty. But, again, what is true for the individual is not true for the group as a whole. The same proposition - education is the solution to poverty - holds true on the individual level but is false on the aggregate level. In this regard, urging the poor to get an education is similar to telling them to "go get a job." We need to counter both mythologies.

Many critics point out that most job-training programs have had a serious problem with finding jobs for their graduates. But the problem is even more severe than what is suggested by that aspect. Giving job training to one person on welfare can help that person get a job. But that person generally takes a job that would otherwise go to some other low-income person, possibly someone else on welfare. The net gain is zero.

Inadequate education can not be blamed for poverty. If all of the poor suddenly obtained college degrees, the impact on poverty would be minimal. The formerly poor, now with college degrees, would take jobs from people with high-school diplomas.

Just as more training can enable the loser in a game of musical chairs to get a chair during the next round, so too can more education enable some of the poor to lift themselves out of poverty. But so long as job opportunities are as limited in this country as they have been since World War II, tens of millions of Americans will be living in poverty no matter how much our schools are improved.

What is needed is to add chairs to the circle until there's a chair for everyone, which is what the federal government did during World War II. "Go get a job" and "stay in school" are two ways of saying: "If you end up poor, it's your own fault."

D. The Medical Model of Mental Illness

Shifting focus away from the economy is also seen in "the psychiatrization of American society." Psychiatry has expanded far beyond the high-priced couches of psychoanalysts and the snake pits of state hospitals. Psychologists, social workers, counselors, New Age spiritualists, and all sorts of self-help practitioners permeate society hawking "cures" for ever-more new forms of "mental illness." Increasingly, the American Psychiatric Association and their allies apply new diagnoses to ordinary personal problems, which they say are caused by some vague biological disorder which can only be "treated" by high-priced professionals.

The psychiatrization of society is reflected in the growing tendency to write autobiographies and biographies that dwell on sordid and sensationalistic elements in the lives of celebrities and other well-known individuals. Joyce Carol Oates, the writer, has called this "pathography," which she describes as follows:

Its motifs are dysfunction and disaster, diseases and pratfalls, failed marriages and failed careers, alcoholism and breakdowns and outrageous conduct. It scenes are sensational, wallowing in squalor and foolishness; its dominant images are physical and deflating; its shrill theme is 'failed promise,' if not outright tragedy.'
This approach presents individuals as victims dependent on professionals. The growing legion of talk-show hosts who constantly instruct their fans to seek "professional help" also demonstrate the spread of the psychiatric attitude.

Most proponents of the "medical model of mental illness" argue that political action to establish material security is not relevant to alleviating problems-in-living. They discount the reality that poverty aggravates personal problems and argue instead that pre-existing biological factors cause poverty. This approach reduces human beings to the status of a machine and legitimizes treating people as objects to be manipulated and "fixed" by experts who administer their "therapy."

A variation on the medical model is evolutionary psychology as affirmed by biological determinism. As summarized by Richard Wright in The New Yorker, this point of view rejects the notion that troublesome behavior is caused by genetic deficiencies, as many medical-model proponents have argued. Rather, oppressive social and economic conditions allegedly produce biological changes that cause people to engage in problematic conduct, such as violence.

Although sympathetic to direct government action to expand economic opportunity, this perspective reinforces the biological model and discounts the relevance of free will. By assuming that individuals are helpless victims of (environmentally-induced) biological forces, evolutionary psychology undermines both personal responsibility and the possibility of collective action. In this way, it strengthens the status quo and serves a conservative function, partly by sanctioning oppressive methods of social control such as psychiatric drugs that supposedly correct biochemical imbalances.

No doubt, economic insecurity wreaks havoc on the body's nervous system. Most of the problems now labeled "mental illness" and attributed to alleged biological deficiencies would greatly subside if underlying stresses were removed and replaced with a basic degree of security in the context of caring communities. As stated by Micaela di Leonardo: "feelings and culture, in an egalitarian, well-funded environment, will take care of themselves." Given the opportunity, human beings know how to take care of themselves and each other. Self-care and mutual support happen naturally, without people having to be paid for it. Any effort to respond to "craziness" that does not include establishing economic justice is doomed to failure.

But we must keep in mind the contradiction between individual and social perspectives. From the social perspective, all individuals cannot overcome oppressive conditions and lift themselves out of poverty, for there aren't enough jobs for everyone. But from the individual perspective, people are not helpless victims. Martin Luther King's, Jr.'s daughter expressed the point well when she said:

For a long time, we as African Americans have gotten caught up in the victim cycle. It does not excuse the fact that we are victims, but if we stay caught up in that, then we cannot liberate ourselves, and we certainly can't help to liberate others.
Regardless of circumstances imposed on us, we cope by making decisions and acting on them. We need not be dependent on professionals or their drugs, though we may choose to use them. We can steadily strengthen our degree of self-determination and we can organize politically to eliminate social and economic injustice. Political struggle can itself facilitate further personal growth.

The psychiatric medical model, on the other hand, counters these possibilities. The medical model exaggerates the power of biology by presenting biological factors (which can be overcome by free will and political action) as causes (which can only be corrected by psychiatrists). As such, it depoliticizes people - it takes them out of the game as free co-creators of reality.

E. Blaming the Culture

Another way to de-emphasize economic opportunity is to exaggerate the importance of culture. Proponents of the "culture of poverty," for example, have argued that poor people grow up in a radically different world with its own set of values. Poor children allegedly learn attitudes and beliefs that run counter to mainstream culture. Consequently, they find it difficult if not impossible to cope with the dominant society. They live constantly on the "outside" and pass on this culture to their children, who in turn do the same to their children. This approach also stops short of blaming the poor, who are presented as victims of an overwhelming cultural juggernaut.

Once again, some problem other than government-created lack of economic opportunity is presented as the major reason for poverty. Since the problem is cultural, the proposed solution is also cultural. Consequently, political action to change governmental policy directly is ignored, de-emphasized, or discounted entirely.

This analysis overlooks the degree to which poor people hold the same values as do most Americans. They want to be self-sufficient; they are willing to work; they are kind and compassionate; they love their families and want to provide their children with a good life. The cultural problems we have in this country are shared across the board; they are not concentrated among the poor. Analyzing poverty as culturally-rooted denies the importance of political action to expand economic opportunity.

Among African-Americans, this approach is demonstrated by those who advocate "cultural nationalism," a school of thought that emphasizes self-help and avoidance of direct political action. The Million Man March on Washington held in 1995 clearly illustrated this perspective. Louis Farrakhan, the head of the Nation of Islam who organized the march, described the main problem facing African Americans as cultural: white racism, especially as exhibited in the images of African Americans shown in movies and on television. Consequently, in his invitation, Farrakhan said a major reason for the march was "we want to reverse the ugly look of black men around the world by giving the world a positive look at dedicated, sober, determined black men."

Secondly, Farrakhan said he wanted "to declare ... that we are ready to shoulder our responsibility as the heads of our families and leaders in our communities." At the march, he urged his followers to "go back home and turn our communities into decent and safe places.... Then white people will say, 'They're marvelous.'"

Although the march paid lip-service to political action by registering voters, the overall thrust of the event was non-political. "We didn't come to Washington to petition the government for a way out of hurt, but to find a way out of our affliction," Farrakhan told the crowd in Washington. And in his invitation, he stated, "It is our responsibility to do for ourselves and our families." His method for achieving this goal is to advance black separatism rooted in a counter-culture that emphasizes repentance and "atonement with God" - rather than political confrontation with the white power structure to fundamentally alter established economic policies.

Another form of blaming the culture is exhibited by Michael Lerner and two projects he heads, the Foundation for Ethics and Meaning and Tikkun Magazine. Lerner focuses his criticism on the culture of "materialism, selfishness and cynicism" and calls for "a new ethos of caring and idealism and hopefulness." To put this new culture into practice, he proposes that:

institutions or legislation or social practices be judged efficient or productive to the degree to which they help foster human beings capable of sustaining loving and caring relationships and human beings who are ethically, spiritually and ecologically sensitive and involved.

With this strategy, Lerner, like Farrakhan, is fundamentally non-political with his extreme emphasis on cultural change. This distortion is reflected in the following statement distributed to Foundation members:

Moreover, the central part of the strategy of the Politics of Meaning is to change the way we understand and experience our world. Changing consciousness (our own and others) is not a distraction from political action, it is political action of the most important sort!
On issues related to fundamental economic rights, Lerner is ambiguous. In its original statement of purpose, the Foundation declared:
We will foster a campaign for full employment and meaningful work.... We shall struggle for changes in economic life that ensure full employment and work that is humanly fulfilling and that recognizes the centrality of rest and adequate time to build loving relationships, strong families, and last friendships.
But this formulation does not explicitly affirm federal responsibility for insuring full employment. This language leaves open to interpretation whether personal or spiritual conversion could lead to a transformed private economy, including increased private charity, that would guarantee meaningful work. When asked at a Foundation meeting, whether he supports higher taxes on the wealthy to help the federal government guarantee living-wage employment, Lerner declined to answer and responded, "I don't want it to appear that we're supporting Big Government unless we can define how the government can be more caring."

This anti-government bias is also demonstrated in the following statement included in Foundation literature: "We support the transfer of many of government's traditional functions to civil society." Lerner elaborated on this point by citing the military and schools as examples of government functions than can be privatized.

This extreme emphasis on personal transformation, while denigrating the government, is forwarded by many of those who are identified with the "communitarian movement." This point of view was expressed by Sandy Close, head of Pacific News Service, after she received a MacArthur "Genius" Award. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, she said:

God has moved his wand from the affairs of state to the affairs of society.... [I]n public or political life there are no new ideas. It is the end of history in that sense. But it is the beginning of history at the level of private life, where people are making decision on the premise that government is not going to be there for them, or if it is it will be threatening to them."
These examples illustrate forms of blaming the culture. They share in common an aversion to direct political action and a refusal to propose clear, concrete changes in public policy. By emphasizing cultural issues and failing to mobilize people in a political manner, the cultural warriors serve to reinforce the system's de-politicization of the American people. Since these advocates are essentially apolitical or anti-political, the corporate media frequently reports on their activities, while neglecting the work of political activists.

F. Survival of the Fittest

Blaming-the-loser is linked with praising-the-winner. Based on the assumption that the "successful" are inherently "better" people, this "dog-eat-dog" attitude, supposedly based on Darwin's theory of evolution, considers human life a struggle-in-the-jungle in which only the strong survive. Each victory requires another's defeat and those who emerge on top deserve it, because they are superior people. This circular reasoning - they are superior because they win; they win because they are superior - is as obvious as it is wrong. But it is deeply imbedded and widespread. Even worse, this logic is used to argue that government intervention to increase economic opportunity is not justified because the wealthy are entitled to what they have.

Howard Zinn has described the spread of this attitude as follows:

And so, the schools, the churches, the popular literature taught that to be rich was a sign of superiority, to be poor a sign of personal failure, and that the only way upward for a poor person was to climb into the ranks of the rich by extraordinary effort and extraordinary luck. <

In the late 1800s, in conjunction with the accumulation of enormous personal wealth by the "robber barons" of the time, "Social Darwinism" was propagated as a secular religion. The phrase "survival of the fittest" entered the popular culture and was used to justify cruelty in the name of "natural law." Russell Conwell, for example, a minister and best-selling author preached Social Darwinism with messages such as:

To sympathize with a man whom God has punished for his sins ... is to do wrong.... Let us remember there is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings.
The industrialist, Andrew Carnegie, himself an oft-quoted figure who was presented as a plain-spoken sage, affirmed this supposed natural law with special vigor:
...[W]hile the law may be hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it assures the survival of the fittest in every department. We accept and welcome, therefore, as conditions to which we must accommodate ourselves, great inequality of environment, the concentration of business, industrial and commercial, in the hands of a few, and the law of competition between these, as being not only beneficial, but essential for the future progress of the race.

Supreme Court Justice David J. Brewer in 1893 told a public gathering:

It is the unvarying law that the wealth of the community will be in the hands of the few.... The great majority of men are unwilling to endure that long self-denial and saving which makes accumulations possible....
In 1932, Princeton University Professor E. G. Conklin helped perpetuate this mythology:
Some of the weaker, according to the law of nature, will naturally die under the stress of the times. The strong and hardy will survive and reproduce, and thus the human race will be strengthened.
And the leader of Social Darwinism in the United States, William Graham Sumner, expressed the point as follows in 1914:
Nature ... grants her rewards to the fittest.... We can take from the better and give to the worse. We can deflect the penalties of those who have done ill and throw them on those who have done better ... [which] carries society downwards and favors all its worst members.
Today, this disturbing language remains familiar; many people still believe that the extreme concentration of wealth is the natural outcome of the workings of a Darwinian law of evolution. Eloise Anderson, for example, an African American woman who was raised in a poor neighborhood and now serves as head of California's Department of Social Services under Republican Governor Pete Wilson, compared the working poor to AFDC recipients with the following comments:
They [the working poor] made the same bad decisions [as AFDC recipients], except the working poor usually live with their decisions; they go to work, they say, 'Hey, I blew it, but I'm working.'
And in an analysis of the economy, the liberal Washington Post published the following by staff writer Steven Pearlstein:
...[W]hat distinguishes the modern economy is the degree to which even small differences in talent or performance - or luck - now lead to very large differences in rewards.

This is not merely an economic phenomenon. In the Darwinian struggles studied by biologists, even slight variations in the shape of a beak or the size of a tail or the spots on a fish can dictate which species come to dominate an ecosystem, and which ones die out.

The implication is clear: current economic conditions flow from the operation of "natural law" and there is nothing we can do about it. Within the context of propaganda such as this, self-esteem is often based on comparisons with others.

The belief that those who "win" are necessarily the "fittest," however, is neither Darwinian nor true. Concerning the phrase "struggle to survive," Darwin wrote:

...I use the term in a large and metaphorical sense including dependence of one being on another, and including (which is more important) not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny. Two canine animals, in a time of dearth, may truly be said to struggle with each other which shall get food and live. But a plant at the edge of the desert is said to struggle for life against the drought.
According to Darwin, in a time of abundance, creatures often cooperate in an interdependent fashion. Antagonism is typically the result of scarcity, not some inherent tendency toward aggression. Darwin only affirmed an in-built urge to reproduce one's own species, not any universal urge to destroy or dominate. How that reproduction proceeds depends on the environment. The renown biologist, Stephen Jay Gould, has summarized the issue as follows:
Darwin's theory of natural selection is an abstract argument about a metaphorical 'struggle' to leave more offspring in subsequent generations, not a statement about murder and mayhem. Direct elimination of competitors is one pathway to Darwinian advantage, but another might reside in cooperation through social ties within a species or by symbiosis between species. For every act of killing and division, natural selection can also favor cooperation and integration in other circumstances.
Natural selection tends to favor traits that "fit" a particular environment; those that fit better are more likely to survive over time. And organisms change their characteristics genetically over time to better fit their environments. But modern biology lends no support to the proposition that survival requires selfishness, greed, or lack of sympathy for the less fortunate.

In fact, the animals that are closest to humans in terms of the evolutionary tree and genetic make-up, the gibbon and the super-chimp, are remarkably playful and cooperative creatures. Human beings want meaning in their lives; they want to be competent in their work and to "make a difference." But these needs do not imply an urge to dictate or dominate. "I wanna be your lover, baby, I don't wanna be your boss," as sung by Bob Dylan, better captures the depths of human nature than do stereotypic rationalizations about a supposed "will to power."

Moreover, the fact that a certain group of individuals "dominate" a given society at a given time is no proof of long-term, inherent "superiority," from a evolutionary point of view. Over time, many sub-species have temporarily taken their position at the "top" of that species' tree of evolution, appearing to be the fruition of the evolutionary process, only to become extinct as some other branch on the tree flourished and went on to breed many other sub-species. Perhaps this possibility helps explain the popular fascination with dinosaurs, who quickly fell from their throne of power. Humanity could well be on a similar course and may need to substantially alter its life style in order to survive. We may be devolving rather than evolving.

The mere fact of survival does not necessarily indicate any superiority or any special biological "fitness." Some 99 percent of all species that have lived are now extinct. Many of these species did not survive due to accidents, chance, and "random genetic drift." Whether looking at an individual, a class of individuals, or a species, apparent "success" may be luck, rather than any special fitness, as expressed in the saying, "born with a silver spoon in his mouth."

Class-based arrogance is often rooted in the assumption of a superior, inherited intelligence that is passed on "in the genes" from one generation to the next, enabling children to take power by virtue of their innate abilities. But R.C. Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon Kamin have established in Not In Our Genes that this point of view is wrong on several counts. First of all:

a child whose family is in the top 10 percent of economic success has a 25 times greater chance of also being at the top than the child of the poorest 10 percent of families, even when both children have average IQ (italics added).
Success in the economy is not determined by "intelligence" as measured by IQ tests. It is the result of the many social advantages that affluent parents are able to pass on to their children.

Differential access to well-paid positions comes from factors such as personal connections, enriched learning environments, private-school tuitions, self-confidence, mannerisms, and manner of speaking. In particular, the inheritance of physical characteristics tends to benefit the children of the privileged, for those in power give preferential treatment to those who are defined by society as physically attractive - characteristics that are inherited. Having money and power are thus mostly a matter of social inheritance, not biological inheritance. Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin argue:

Social power runs in families. The probability that a child will grow into an adult in the highest 10 percent of income earners is ten times greater for children whose parents were in the top 10 percent than for children of the lowest 10 percent.
Referring to the wealthiest one percent, Jewelle Taylor Gibbs has summed up the issue succinctly: "Their children are born to privilege."

Moreover, even the assumption that some people are more "intelligent" than others is suspect. In fact, there are many different types of "intelligence" and it is impossible to combine all of them into one measure of over-all intelligence. As stated by Lewontin and his colleagues:

"Indeed, we do not know what that mysterious quality 'intelligence' is. At least one psychologist, E. G. Boring, has defined it [intelligence] as 'what intelligence tests measure.' The empirical fact is that there exist tests that predict reasonably well how a child will perform in school. That these tests advertise themselves as 'intelligence' measures should not delude us into investing them with more meaning than they have."
Certain cultures and sub-cultures define certain, particular ways of behaving as signs of supposed superior intelligence. This assumed superiority is then taken to mean greater human worth and is used to justify the hoarding of money. But a hustler with "street smarts," or a native healer with "wisdom," or a bartender with "emotional intelligence" may have much different, and perhaps more valid, ideas concerning the nature of intelligence.

Regardless, contrary to Social Darwinism, modern biology offers no support for the claim that the poor must lose in some natural struggle for survival, during which the less able must pay the price for evolutionary progress. Social Darwinism is nothing more than circular logic that serves to rationalize economic injustice.

Those who miss out, accordingly, are considered deficient, not unlucky. For the sake of efficiency and economic growth, these losers in the "struggle for survival" must be sacrificed on the altar of progress. But the rags-to-riches drama of the Horatio Alger myth bears little resemblance to reality, even though a few Bill Gates surface from time to time.

The increase in inequality witnessed in this country is often explained by claiming that those who fail do not prepare themselves for the new global economy. As Michael Lind points out in a review of The Winner-Take-All Society by Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook:

Human-capital theorists tend to attribute the growth of inequality to the failure of those at the bottom on the ladder to take advantage of opportunities, because of lack of training (Robert Reich) or genetic inferiority (Charles Murray).
But surely there has been no dramatic shift in the distribution of personal talents that can explain the recent redistribution of personal income. Increased inequality is not the result of a Darwinian struggle, but the result of private and public economic policies, such as the American predisposition to raid other corporations for top executives in a bidding war rather than promoting from within as is done in Germany and Japan.

Compared to the mythologies of Social Darwinism, the words of Maria Montessori are far closer to the truth:

The greatest step forward in human evolution was made when society began to help the weak and the poor, instead of oppressing and despising them.
Or, as captured by Lily Tomlin, "The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you're still a rat."

Even if the Social Darwinists were correct, we are still free to rise above our natural instincts. Social Darwinists neglect the issue, but human beings are moral creatures, blessed with free will; as such, we are responsible for our decisions - and our government.

The six arguments against federal action to directly expand economic opportunity discussed in this chapter are not convincing. But these arguments are not the end of it. The next chapter analyzes five more reasons forwarded by critics for not moving toward federally guaranteed economic security.

Sources for this chapter included the following, in order of appearance.
For more specific references, contact Wade Hudson at

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