Elias recently impugned the anti-poverty motives of conservatives, so I’ll take a crack at the left.
Low-income status, to too many politically correct liberals, is a demographic “box to check.” Far from treating poverty as an intolerable condition that demands eradication, they look at “low income” as a diversity-enhancing signifier comparable to being black or transgender. Immiseration and class, thus thrown in with categories in which heterogeneity is hailed, aren’t in line for abolition but for anodyne amalgamation— class mixing, not class elimination. The upshot: the elimination of poverty and the curtailing of material chasms between classes are afterthoughts. But material destitution has no place in a multiracial, pluralistic democracy. It’s a cancer that corrodes the body politic. If a post-racist society—rather than a post-racial society—is desirable, so is a society in which privation and class, and not simply classism, are relics of the past.
For liberals, none of this is accidental. Their subscription to the ideology of upward mobility definitionally demands winners and losers. The lucky few rise from their debased, degraded circumstances; the many languish. The existence of poverty remains static, even as a person here or there frees herself from its firm grip. The cynic might even say that affluent, congenitally guilty liberals benefit from this lasting pool of poor people. What else would so assuage their consciences as funding scholarships for the needy?
If my corner of the left is guilty of anything, it’s a romanticization of poverty. For one, there’s the Emersonian escapism that anticipated the contemporary off the grid “movement.” Crude lifestyle-ism, this isn’t a politics capable of effecting social change, but an ineffective, dispersed retreat that isolates people and personalizes structural problems. Additionally, there’s an urban bohemianism with a long pedigree on the left. Here, ascetic living is valued for its back-to-basics simplicity, artistic, non-conformist spontaneity, and rejection of capitalist consumerism. The urge has much to offer, but it can minimize the horrors of poverty—the insecurity, the diminution of health, the lack of dignity. Thoroughgoing post-materialism is positively grotesque and callous when material deprivation is still the lived reality of many. Those mired in poverty don’t choose privation. They don’t suffer to satisfy some spiritual need. They’re simply stuck.
Poverty is really awful, and it’s really preventable. Matt Bruenig has likened it to toxic lead:
In response to learning that lead was messing up kids brains, we sought to eliminate exposure to it, e.g. by banning leaded gasoline, by banning lead paint, and by undertaking lead remediation projects. But we don’t do that for poverty, not really. Neither party is out there saying we need to eliminate poverty exposure. Instead, we’ve decided to keep in place the economic institutions that cause poverty to exist, and frantically construct policies that mop up part of the disaster that impoverishment then causes. It would be as if, instead of eliminating exposure to lead, we just kept poisoning kids with it, and created a bunch of Lead Charter Schools that were specifically targeted for the needs of lead-poisoned students.
The analogy is apt, and the policy prescription is clear: Get rid of poverty.