Paul Ryan and Jeb Bush, the didactic-meets-dynastic duo, spoke recently at a Manhattan Institute gathering, providing a Mayberry-like prescription for combating poverty in this country: all it takes is more friendship and traditional marriage.
Ryan said: “The best way to turn from a vicious cycle of despair and learned helplessness to a virtuous cycle of hope and flourishing is by embracing the attributes of friendship, accountability and love.”
Really, I’m touched. But as every poor person in America will tell you, you can’t use friendship tokens to pay the electricity bill, and you can’t simply hug the cashier and walk away with groceries.
Furthermore, the statement makes a basic and demeaning assumption about the poor: that they suffer a deficiency of friendship, accountability and loving relationships. That, sir, has not been my experience. Poverty is demonstrative not of a lack of character, but a lack of cash.
For Bush’s part, he said: “A loving family taking care of their children in a traditional marriage will create the chance to break out of poverty far better, far better than any of the government programs that we can create.”
My qualm with the statement is the insistence on a “traditional marriage.”
Loving families, of any formation, can suffice. While it is true that two adults in a home can provide twice the time, attention and income for a family, those adults needn’t necessarily be in a traditional marriage. Yes, marriage can have a sustaining and fortifying effect on a union and a family, but following that argument, we should be rushing headlong to extend it to all who desire it. In some cases, even parents living apart can offer a nurturing environment for children if they prioritize parenting when it comes to their time and money. Not all parents have to reside together to provide together.
There are many ways to be a loving family and to provide what children need. All forms of marriage are valid and valuable, as well as other ways of constructing a family.
The bigger issue here is the constant juxtaposition of traditional values with social safety nets, as if they were mutually exclusive or, worse, had a zero-sum relationship. The logic is that people rely on public benefits because they have turned their backs on traditional values.
This is part and parcel of conservative thinking about the rich and poor in this country: that the poor are so because they lack some basic value — ambition, for example — and the rich are so because they have an abundance of it.
A Pew Research Center/USA Today survey in January found that, unlike Democrats and independents, most Republicans believe that people are poor primarily because of a lack of effort, and that people are rich primarily because they work harder than others.
The roles of privilege, structural inequities and discriminatory policies seem to have little weight, and the herculean efforts of the working poor, who often toil at backbreaking work that the body can’t long endure, seem invisible.
That construct, that the poor are in some way deficient, is a particularly poisonous and unsupportable position. And, by extension, the proposition that people can simply love and marry — traditionally only — their way out of poverty is supremely condescending.
This position, cloaked in an air of benevolence and good will, is in fact lacking in understanding of the lives of poor people and compassion for their plight.
And if the hypocrisy were not glaring enough, poorer people have been shown to be more generous than richer people. As McClatchy reported in 2009:
“Indeed, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest survey of consumer expenditure found that the poorest fifth of America’s households contributed an average of 4.3 percent of their incomes to charitable organizations in 2007. The richest fifth gave at less than half that rate, 2.1 percent.”
Yes, those with the least give the most, and yet people like Ryan and Bush find them lacking.
Poverty is a demanding, stressful, depressive and often violent state. No one seeks it; they are born or thrust into it. In poverty, the whole of your life becomes an exercise in coping and correcting, searching for a way up and out, while focusing today on filling the pots and the plates, maintaining a roof and some warmth, and dreading the new challenge tomorrow may bring.
We should extend the conversation about tackling poverty, but that conversation should not be governed by the belief that poverty in resources is synonymous with poverty of values.