The Corner

Speaker for the Poor

David Brooks of the New York Times says that poor people need to learn to behave themselves, and Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig of What Remains of the New Republic is having none of it. “If the problems plaguing poor communities persist after poverty is drastically reduced,” she writes, “that would seem an appropriate time to pursue the matter of a better ‘moral vocabulary,’ as Brooks calls it.”

I trust that everybody else sees the most obvious problem with that line of argument, too, i.e. that we have experienced a drastic reduction in poverty and that the pathologies of the poor persist.

In 1940, the median man’s income was $956, or about $9,270 in 2015 dollars, well short of today’s poverty level for a single person, and that median man’s income in 1940 was usually supporting a family. By extension, the median family of the time was deep in poverty by modern standards—poverty was the general condition. That is no longer the case. By any meaningful measure, we already have seen poverty “drastically reduced,” and not only does the social dysfunction that worries Brooks endure, it grows worse in many ways. Americans, including the poor, are in material terms radically better off than they were in 1950, 1960, or 1970. In 1950, the typical household had to spend about a third of its income on groceries; today, that number is about 6 percent.

We could talk about the numbers all day, but there is something about this piece that irritates me personally: Who in hell elected Elizabeth Bruenig of Arlington, Brandeis, Brown, Cambridge, etc., a privately educated suburban girl raised by highly educated, married, churchgoing parents, whose life’s lamentations include that she wasn’t asked to the prom, Speaker for the Poor?

The irony here is rich: Bruenig complains that Brooks and others who worry about the habits of the poor are simply engaged in micturition from a great height: “It’s the norms of upper-class America that Brooks would impose upon the lower class.” That’s not quite it, of course—part of the point is that the poor cannot afford such indulgences; Dan Quayle and Murphy Brown and all that—but you see where she’s going: “Who, exactly, is asking these questions and holding people responsible?” she writes.

Who is David Brooks to ask these questions?

Who is Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig to ask?

One of the problems with growing up with the sorts of advantages typical of the class of Americans who make policy and write commentary (“Brandeis was the only school I interviewed or toured at”) is that they become blind to the norms and habits undergirding them, for roughly the same reason that no fish knows what water is. Thus Bruenig scoffs at “paranoia about poor people nursing addictions and indulging themselves before spending money on necessities,” which is more or less exactly how I remember things going down in my own little corner of tornado-bait government-cheese pandemonium. “Ashamed of the incarceration of relatives”? After springing him, my mother made him lie down in the back seat so that the neighbors wouldn’t know he was back. Ashamed, maybe—but not ashamed enough.

Nobody wants to admit that the poor are as likely to be screw-ups as victims, and that the old-fashioned Romney-style square and sober organization of family life—upon which the Left has been waging all-out war for 50 years—is a necessary if not sufficient condition of stability and advancement for a great many people. So you end up with that strange situation in which you have activists on the left who have been raised in such thoroughly conservative circumstances that they either fail to understand them at all or come to hold them in contempt: Talk like Eldridge Cleaver, live like Ward and June Cleaver.

As a social posture, that sort of thing can be effective: Consider, for example, career of Bruce Springsteen, whose workingman shtick was trenchantly described by one critic as a “white minstrel show.” All the romance of poverty with none of the smell. But the condescending well-off suburbanites who, having read a couple of magazine articles on the subject confirming their preexisting biases, are here to explain to us that the poor “don’t seem to lack a moral compass”—golly!—turn out to be every bit as helpful as condescending white liberals such as Harry Reid who presume to speak on behalf of minority groups to which they do not belong and of which they have only the shallowest of experience.

Jason Riley explored that with Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed. I get the feeling that black poverty and urban poverty are different from white poverty and rural-and-small-town poverty. (One obvious difference: Poor, white Appalachia has about half the violent crime rate of the United States at large, even though Eastern Kentucky and the South Bronx have a lot in common.) The David Brooks school of thought has its limitations, to be sure, occasionally devolving into “Why don’t these poor people keep it in their pants and go to law school?” But to discount the role that family and marital dysfunction—and the violence and chaos that ensue—plays in American poverty serves no one well, except perhaps those well-off suburban progressives who don’t want to feel all icky and judgmental about all those lives that are so very messy and so very much in need of judgment.

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