Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and as such, it’s incredibly important to discuss an issue that was at the top of MLK’s priority list: Economic justice. In MLK’s day, the big concern was that there were wide swaths of America that were shut out of a humble middle class lifestyle because they lived in chronic poverty. He would no doubt be appalled at how things have gotten worse in a lot of ways. Not only is chronic poverty still a problem for a lot of people, but the middle class that seemed much more stable in his day is falling apart, as the people at the top 1% of the income ladder are sucking up more and more of they nation’s wealth for themselves. I recommend Paul Krugman’s excellent dismantling of the conservative narrative that poverty is caused by “lifestyle”, where he argues instead that poverty is caused by the same damn thing that is causing the middle class to struggle in a way that calls into question whether or not they are really “middle class” anymore.
The story goes like this: America’s affluent are affluent because they made the right lifestyle choices. They got themselves good educations, they got and stayed married, and so on. Basically, affluence is a reward for adhering to the Victorian virtues.
What’s wrong with this story? Even on its own terms, it postulates opportunities that don’t exist. For example, how are children of the poor, or even the working class, supposed to get a good education in an era of declining support for and sharply rising tuition at public universities? Even social indicators like family stability are, to an important extent, economic phenomena: nothing takes a toll on family values like lack of employment opportunities.
But the main thing about this myth is that it misidentifies the winners from growing inequality. White-collar professionals, even if married to each other, are only doing O.K. The big winners are a much smaller group. The Occupy movement popularized the concept of the “1 percent,” which is a good shorthand for the rising elite, but if anything includes too many people: most of the gains of the top 1 percent have in fact gone to an even tinier elite, the top 0.1 percent.
Indeed, I hadn’t really considered how the conservative narrative is about subtly trying to stoke resentment between people who are poor and drift in and out of poverty and people whose employment is more stable but who are finding that their higher incomes are getting eaten up by housing and education costs and therefore are facing down the strong possibility that they may not be able to retire. The upper middle class of 2014 lives a lifestyle that was assumed to be bare minimum to be considered middle class in the 60s: Able to afford children and their education and save for retirement. The actual middle class lives a lifestyle that is closer to what 60s era folks would have recognized as working class. Working class Americans, on the other hand, drift in and out of poverty. Basically, across the board, everyone who is not rich is getting screwed by the system. The truth is that people across all sorts of class boundaries in America stand to gain by pushing for economic equality. I suspect that this is the reason that college-educated white people are starting to vote Democratic more than ever; they recognize that the same policies that are leaving their high school-educated peers in daily danger of homelessness are also the same policies that mean they swim in educational debt, can’t afford to buy a house, and will never be able to retire—all while the number of hours they have to work soars.
Indeed, I don’t think Americans generally are falling for the attempts to pit middle class against working class people. I think we all get that that’s just an attempt to reduce our expectations of what we deserve for our hard work and our status as citizens and human beings. Conservatives would love to make it so that everyone is arguing over whether or not you get to eat every day, which is why there’s attempts to stoke resentment around food stamps. What we need, however, is to demand way more, for everyone: Jobs, the ability to retire, a safe place to live, access to healthy food, leisure time and entertainment, health care, and affordable education. For everyone.
Under a bill Vitter introduced Wednesday, beneficiaries of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) would be denied their food if they are unable to show a photographic identification card at the register. For millions of low-income Americans who don’t have an official photo ID and can’t necessarily afford to buy one, Vitter’s bill would mean being cut off from their primary food source.
Yes, part of this is mean-spirited sadism with a heavy dose of ugly racism, feeding off white conservatives’ resentful belief that “they” pay for “their” (read: African-Americans) lifestyle. But it’s also an attempt to divert attention from the larger question of income inequality. Vitter wants to start arguments about whether or not people “deserve” food, precisely so we’re not talking about whether or not the rich deserve to suck up all our nation’s wealth so that the rest of us have to work our asses off without any hope of improving our lives. Hopefully, more and more people are seeing through this. I mean, most lower income people already do, of course, but hopefully more middle class people are beginning to see that conservatives are trying to get us riled up about someone else using food stamps so we’re not getting riled up about how we drift closer and closer every day to having to go on food stamps ourselves.