James Baldwin, the acclaimed African-American novelist and poet, famously wrote, "Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor." Baldwin was speaking of the psychological complexity of socioeconomic disparities.
His observations were specifically of the African-American community at the height of segregation in the 1960s, but the concept that the poor are often disparately more indebted and carry a greater financial burden, for lack of the necessary resources to survive, is just as much a reality today as it was then.
The political battles currently being waged in Washington reflect age-old struggles between the haves and have-nots. President Barack Obama, elected on a wave of populist enthusiasm — otherwise known as hope — came to embody the dreams of both the slave and the immigrant, giving birth to the idea that all men are created equal, and that the American dream is truly attainable by all.
Three short years later, and we see a nation divided and a crippled economy. Those who have held power for far too long are well-equipped at constructing a paradigm in which to maintain it. The Republican establishment and its neo-Confederate Tea Party caucus are hell-bent on destroying the goodwill achieved by the election of America's first African-American president and, in light of the latest battle over the debt-ceiling increase, have proved that they are willing to go as far as threatening the nation's economic solvency in order to "take their country back."
But from whom?
It seems that the entire conservative platform, often inarticulately expressed by the Republican congressional leadership and their Tea Party spokesmen, is committed to austerity measures that, at their core, are an assault on the poor and the middle class. Cuts to entitlement spending were a carte blanche requirement before negotiations could be entered on the matter of extending the debt ceiling and avoiding what could have become the nation's first-ever default.
No higher taxes for the wealthy could be considered because of a blind allegiance to the uncompromising Grover Norquist pledge signed by so many Republicans. And last month, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah expressed their true sentiment on the floor of the chamber when he insulted the American poor.
Hatch claimed that poor people need to take more responsibility for relieving the country's debt, because, after all, it would be unfair to tax the "daylights out of everybody around here." In this unscripted moment, Hatch unwittingly reveals that he is part of the problem, not the solution, and that he represents the very "wealthy" whom President Obama is asking to share in the burden during these tough economic times. "Everybody around here" presumably refers to Hatch and his fellow senators, who earn $174,000 a year and whose median net worth (as of 2009) was $2.4 million.
Herein lies the conundrum of American wealth in relationship to American poverty: The pride and prejudice are so wholly embraced that the shame has found no place to hide.
A Heavier Burden for Blacks
About 43.6 million Americans (14.3 percent) were living in poverty in 2009, up from 39.8 million (13.2 percent) in 2008, according to the U.S. Census. The Department of Health and Human Services correlated the poverty level to a total yearly income of $22,350 for a family of four and $10,890 for an individual. Although whites represent the largest number of those in poverty, for African Americans and Hispanics, poverty rates are much higher, with 24.7 percent of all blacks and 23.7 percent of all Hispanics in America living below the poverty line. This is compared with 8.6 percent of all whites.
Perhaps Orrin Hatch needs a lesson in statistics. His ignorant naïveté conveys two things: 1) the GOP's eagerness to throw working families under the bus to avoid placing even the slightest burden on the wealthy and corporations, and 2) our politicians' complete disconnect from the realities most Americans live with and struggle through.
A recent report published by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that has gained credibility in conservative and Republican circles, explored the question of what qualifies as poverty in America. The report, entitled "Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an Xbox: What Is Poverty in the United States Today," appears to support all the ill-informed tenets of conservative thinking with regard to the true nature of poverty. The report concludes that the poor in America are quite well-off and lead lives relatively free of economic want.
What were the factors that informed the report's analysis? The Heritage Foundation noted the household appliances present in the homes of the American poor. The typical poor household, according to the report, has "a car, air conditioning, color televisions, cable or satellite TV, a DVD player or VCR … a refrigerator, an oven, stove, and a microwave."
The Heritage Foundation concluded that the state of American poverty is being drastically exaggerated by Democrats and liberals, and that "Over the long term, exaggeration has the potential to promote a substantial misallocation of limited resources for a government that is facing massive future deficits."
Insensitivity Parading as Austerity
This echoes the Orrin Hatch philosophy. "I hear how they [President Obama and Democrats] are so caring for the poor and so forth," Hatch said in remarks on the Senate floor last month. "The poor need jobs. And they also need to share some of the responsibility." It is baffling why so many lower-middle-class and rural, poor whites continue to vote Republican when the party's agenda is so antithetical to their interests and well-being.
By seeking to define poverty in absolute terms, the Republican political machine is engaging in an exercise that could literally form a Third World America. The latest austerity measures enforced by the debt compromise, and the looming cuts to government spending expected to occur, may well lead to a double-dip recession — but that is only the least of our worries.
American is facing systemic, long-term unemployment and underemployment. This can only serve to compound the dilemma already faced by those who are impoverished.
By suggesting that the poor should help shoulder the burden because they have televisions, conservatives flatly ignore the psychological aspects of poverty. Does simply owning a car or television now make one rich? Has the bar been reset so low?
By claiming that people are not poor because they have clothing to wear or a refrigerator in which to keep food implies that they are undeserving of basic human needs. This is inhumane and decisively un-American. And destroying social programs designed to help those in need will send the message that insensitivity, parading as austerity, is the new status quo.
As James Baldwin proclaimed in his collection of essays The Price of the Ticket, "The inequalities suffered by the many are in no way justified by the rise of a few." The American political and diplomatic process should encourage progress, not legislate lack and want.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.