Monday, October 29, 2012
Poverty and politics: Centre’s Rick Axtell says the poor have been ignored this election cycle
Rick Axtell, the Paul L. Cantrell Associate Professor of Religion at Centre College in Danville, recently discussed issues of poverty and their importance in the 2012 presidential campaign.
Q: How important have issues of poverty been during this election cycle?
One disappointing aspect of this campaign is that no one is talking substantively about poverty. The issue has been largely absent from the national dialogue. In fact, the political conventions consistently emphasized helping the middle class, improving the lives of the middle class, tax cuts for the middle class. Someone should have put an empty chair on the convention stage to represent poor people.
They were simply absent.
Here’s one example: Bill Clinton’s speech lamented the fact that pundits have focused on Paul Ryan’s proposed cuts in Medicare, our federal health care program for the elderly, while ignoring his proposed cuts in Medicaid. Since Medicaid is our primary federal health care program for the poor, I thought, “Finally, someone is going to talk about poverty.” Clinton went on to ask, “Why should you care about this?” And then he reminded us that Medicaid also finances nursing home care for millions of elderly middle class Americans and disability payments for middle class Americans. In other words: “Care about this because it’s a middle class program—not because it is the only source of health insurance for millions of America’s poorest people.” The speech was perfectly emblematic of the pervasive moral failure that has led to calculated silence on this pressing issue.
Q: In your view, what are the key differences between the parties on how to address poverty?
What makes our national discussion so polarized is that conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, have different analyses of the causes of poverty. Generally, conservatism has emphasized personal, behavioral and moral causes. In the name of personal responsibility, conservatives focus on early pregnancy and out-of-wedlock births, breakdown of the family, alcohol and drug addiction, irresponsible work and spending habits, dropping out of school, gang participation and criminal behavior. The corresponding solution is charitable programs on the local level that lead to moral and spiritual renewal, individual behavioral change and private initiative.
Liberals have emphasized systemic and structural causes. In the name of social justice, they focus on the transition from a manufacturing to a service economy with low-wage work for the unskilled, lack of affordable housing, health care costs and the lack of insurance, and entrenched class and race inequalities. The corresponding solutions are public or governmental changes that transform tax policy, foster employment with living wages and income support, build affordable housing, guarantee health insurance and prohibit discrimination.
Both sides grasp a key element of the problem in many cases, but without the other perspective, each analysis is reductionist. Each needs the other because the real lives of poor people are a complex combination of systemic and personal factors that must be addressed if political thought intends to be effective in addressing poverty. We need leaders who will offer a fresh political ethic that reconnects personal and social transformation and highlights creative public/private partnerships.
A government program probably won’t change the life of an addict or restore a sense of self to an alienated gang member. But a recovering addict will end up on the streets if he can’t get a job that will pay him enough to afford an apartment. So we need a renewed systemic focus on wages, benefits and affordable housing. But we also need relational interventions like mentorship and case management that can address personal habits where these may be a factor. If liberals are reluctant to talk about personal transformation and conservatives won’t talk about structural realities that require government action, we’ll remain at an impasse that leaves both sides with tired talking points that are irrelevant, ineffective and even damaging.
Q: What kinds of events are scheduled this semester on campus to raise our own awareness of poverty?
In November our Poverty and Homelessness Week includes volunteer service at local agencies and another convocation entitled “Faces of Homelessness” that will examine the causes of homelessness in our region. Two formerly homeless individuals from Louisville and Cincinnati will share their stories.
Hearing the stories of others may be one of the most important things we can do about the issues we’ve been discussing. Prior to the religious language of Catholic social teaching or the public discourse of human rights is the narrative of human experience, which is the most powerful and universal language. As Catholic moral theologian Monika Hellwig says, “The idea of human rights is surely first shaped by the sense of violation. It has its origin in an existential scream of pain or deprivation. When we hear the scream, we know what it means not because we can explain it but because we can feel it. It is by the capacity for empathy that we know what it means. But we have to hear the scream first.” Perhaps that would do more to change our political discourse on poverty than anything.
From Centre College
You might also want to read Race, gender and culture in the election; A Q&A with Centre professor Andrea Abrams