A Poverty of Empathy

From In These Times:  http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/14034/a_poverty_of_empathy/

The GOP’s social welfare philosophy dates back to 1818.

BY Maggie Garb
October 16, 2012

In 1818, the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism, New York’s first anti-poverty organization, issued a report advocating the need to relieve “the community from the pecuniary exactions, the multiplied exactions, and threatening dangers” associated with paupers.

These middle-class worthies were alarmed at the cost of heating the almshouse in winter, the appearance of women and children scavenging for coal and food scraps along city streets, and the able-bodied men left idle by a serious economic downturn. The report listed the causes of urban poverty: intemperance in drinking, idleness, “want of economy,” gambling, pawnbrokers and “imprudent and hasty marriages.”

Nowhere in the 20-page document did the authors mention the twin burdens of urban laboring people: low wages and few jobs. Instead, the report framed poverty as a moral failure, arguing that the “habits and vices” of the poor need to be remade. The Society later suggested installing a running wheel in the poor house—a massive machine combining the grueling monotony of a hamster wheel and a Stairmaster—to train the poor in the discipline of work.

The Society’s report brings to mind Mitt Romney’s comment about the 47 percent: “My job is not to worry about those people—I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Yet unlike Romney, many Americans are indeed worried about poverty. They feel themselves slipping downward from an already tenuous middle- or working-class style of life. And no one wants to face up to the inadequacy of America’s social safety net.

Like members of the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism, many in Washington reframe poverty as the opposite of work: Those relying on government anti-poverty funds are weak, dependent, or mired in some kind of antisocial marginal culture. Without a strict work requirement, America will become a “nation of government dependency,” said Mitt Romney in August.

Lost in the ongoing welfare debate is the fact that poverty often accompanies work, as Barbara Ehrenreich demonstrated in her 2001 investigation of minimum-wage earners, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Government statistics back her up. A significant number of employed Americans are eligible for the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps. Most of the people receiving government housing vouchers are employed.

Continue reading at:  http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/14034/a_poverty_of_empathy/

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