Campaigns Promising the “Restoration” of the Middle Class Accept Poverty as Inevitable

Aug 29, 2018 by


aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaapovertymarch8Poverty is built into the current economic system in the United States. (Photo:Paul Downey)

In the last Democratic debate, held in Flint, Michigan – a city where, according to the most recent United States Census data, 41.6 percent of the population lives below the poverty line – presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders emphasized the importance of restoring the declining US middle class.

However appealing that almost universal bipartisan campaign meme is, it logically leads to a troubling conclusion: In order to have a “middle” class, one has to assume an ongoing “lower” class. In essence, a campaign promise to rebuild a “robust” middle class is based on the premise that a significant segment of people in the US will compose the bottom tier in the class structure – a tier that exists in a state of poverty.

As Critical Mass Progress Editor Nancy A. Heitzeg recently wrote:

Before the war on drugs became our national fixation, there was a short-lived, halfheartedly implemented war on poverty. Would that the same amount of resources and political will been expended here. But hyper-individualism, rampant capitalism, and a political discourse that persistently racializes poverty and stigmatizes governmental assistance continue to stand in the way.

We are left instead with the war on the poor...

The reality of course is that the over-whelming majority of the 47 million officially poor are there because of structure and policy – low wages, lack of affordable housing, a shrinking social safety net, a decimated public education system, a host of conservative and neoliberal “reforms” – not because of flawed personal choices.

Heitzeg goes on to write that poverty is often criminalized in a variety of ways, and certainly has become fodder for the vast expansion of the prison-industrial complex. In a BuzzFlash commentary today, law professor and columnist Bill Quigley also writes of the grotesque irony that corporations and the upper class make large profits off of those in severe economic distress. Quigley calls these predatory vultures “Reverse Robin Hoods.”

In May 2013, The National Low Income Housing Association reported a rise in what is defined as “extreme poverty”:

A new study from the National Poverty Center finds that 1.65 million American households are living in “extreme poverty,” and these households include 3.55 million children. Using a World Bank definition, the research defines “extreme poverty” as surviving on less than $2 per day, per person, each month. This measure is roughly 13% of the official U.S. poverty threshold. The study utilizes data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) between 1996 and 2011.Between 1996 and 2011, the period directly after welfare reform ended cash entitlement for poor families for children, the number of families living on $2 or less in cash income (per person, per day) rose from 636,000 to 1.65 million. This represents a growth rate of 159%. In 1996, households in extreme poverty made up just 1.7% of all households. This figure increased to 3% by 2010 and reached 4.3% by mid-2011.

Yes, higher taxes on the rich and increased levies on financial transactions can be redistributed to finance projects for the common good. In addition, raising the minimum wage – among other actions – will lift some people out of poverty, but not many, unless the basic capitalist structure of the economy is changed from an emphasis on survival of the fittest to the survival of everyone. Bernie Sanders has repeatedly exposed financial inequities and structural flaws in the US economic system, but even the self-described “democratic socialist” has lately been espousing debate points that lie within the framework of “economic opportunity,” as opposed to advocating for a real transformation of the economy.

For instance, consider this excerpt from a CNN article on the Flint debate:

The forum quickly turned into a heated philosophical argument about an economy that Sanders said is weighted against the middle and working classes and is abetted, he said, by close ties between politicians, such as Clinton, and Wall Street financiers.

Sanders accused Clinton of supporting “disastrous” trade policies that contributed to corporate America’s decision to move manufacturing from cities like Flint to low-wage economies in Central America and Asia.

On the Democratic side of the presidential campaign, both candidates promise steps to reduce economic inequality (whether you believe both of them equally is up to you as a voter) – in part by reining in Wall Street, and in part by adopting a more nationalistic trade policy, in addition to other measures.

Sanders does offer important “superjumbo” ideas (in the words of author and historian Rick Perlstein), such as Medicare for All and no tuition at public colleges, but while seeking votes in a rust belt state such as Michigan, he has become entrapped in the context of a debate over “economic opportunity” and “bringing jobs back home.” This debate contains some good positions – particularly Sanders’ opposition to corporate-written international trade agreements – but these are not proposals for systemic change. They may incrementally mitigate poverty, but they don’t address its existence as a class created by the very nature of the US economy – an economy that deems some people disposable.



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