Poverty is a Disease

Well, sort of, anyway. Paul Krugman argues that treating poverty as a poison would be a good way to think about it, because maybe if we viewed poverty as a disease or poison rather than an unfortunate fate, we would actually collectively fight it as a society, rather than ignoring it. According to a study that Krugman cites, poverty in childhood isn’t just shitty, it’s also damaging to your brain, as stress hormones interfere with the development of healthy, happy neurons. And, Krugman adds, people who come from poverty generally tend to stay poor.

I’m one of the few people I know for whom this is not the case. Most of the people I knew who grew up poor are still poor, and those who grew up rich are still rich. I grew up dirt poor, well below the poverty line, and I am clawing my way into the middle classes, something which comes with its own difficulties.

But I think my “success” is attributable to unique circumstances, not because “…the United States is a land of opportunity, a place where people can start out poor, work hard and become rich,” as many people like to say. I got lucky because my father was well educated, and he valued education, and he raised me to seek intellectual pursuits, and by doing so, I managed to inch my way out of poverty. Most people who grow up as poor as I did are not that fortunate, however, because they grow up not just in poverty but in situations where violence is common, where education is not valued, and where certain social expectations predicate their fates almost from birth.

If you think there aren’t poor people in the United States, really, really poor people, visit a major city. Or a remote rural area. And then tell me that people don’t live in abject poverty in the United States.

And I happen to think that this is very shameful, and even more so when you consider the comparative wealth of the United States. Americans seem deeply troubled by the signs of poverty when they come into contact with them, but they seem reluctant to do anything about it, or to push for radical change. Our government has the power to fight poverty, and it just doesn’t, just like it has the power to institute a single-payer, universal healthcare system, and the power to give education to all Americans for free.

We seem to have made a conscious choice, as a nation, to keep people in poverty and to pretend it’s their fault. And I can’t help but be reminded of a passage in Savage Inequalities when Kozol talks about ballot measures designed to equalize education funding which repeatedly fail in wealthy neighborhoods, because the wealthy* secretly (and not so secretly) want to create advantages for themselves, and one of the ways to do that is to create a service class, a lower class which stays poor and stupid so that they can be abused.

Krugman also used his column to take a shot at the Democratic campaigns, pointing out that Edwards was the only one who seemed to care about poverty. I think Edwards really changed the Clinton and Obama campaigns by bringing up real issues, and I think it’s a pity that, in Krugman’s words, “if a progressive wins this election, it will be by promising to ease the anxiety of the middle class rather than aiding the poor.”

Poverty isn’t just a class issue, it’s a social issue, and it’s a public issue, and I don’t really understand why we tolerate it. We would all be better for it if the United States made a decision to make poverty a priority, and I’m pretty disappointed in our allegedly Christian president for not prioritizing that oh-so-Christian value of charity.

*Before any of my Fortune 500 readers get all riled up, when I say “the wealthy” I refer to a collective attitude which obviously does not encompass every wealthy person in America. I know very generous, caring people of great wealth who obviously do not think this way.