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  • A Tale of Two Poverties

    Posted by Shannon Love on February 3rd, 2009 (All posts by )

    In course of a single conversation, a leftist will tell you two opposing stories about the life of the poor in America. One minute they will tell that for a poor, unskilled, person of color, America is a cruel and oppressive place with so many structural impediments to success that no ordinary person can hope to better themselves without significant help from the government. Literally, the next minute, America is a boundless land of opportunity in which such a disadvantaged person can work their way up the income ladder with no special help from the government.

    Why this tale of two poverties? Why is it the best of times and worst of times to be poor in America? Simple, when the conversation is about native-born poor, America as a land of opportunity is a cruel hoax which frustrates people’s dreams no matter how hard they struggle. When the conversation is about illegal immigration, America is obviously the land of opportunity for anyone no matter how poor they start out. This contradiction not only highlights the intellectual incoherence of leftism but also reveals the selfish motives that drive leftists to make such fallacious arguments in the first place. 

    When leftists argue for increasing social welfare spending, increasing education spending, using affirmative action, etc., they portray America as a bigoted place where greedy corporations are so racist they forgo billions in profits just so they can screw people of color out of jobs and loans. They claim that poor people cannot advance out of poverty without ever-increasing levels of education spending and job training. They claim having no specific job skills permanently traps people in poverty. They claim that no one working unskilled jobs can care for their own children and elderly without government aid. They claim that poor people have no choice but to turn to crime to support themselves. In any conversation about any facet of being poor in America, any leftist will tell you that native-born poor people need massive monetary and social assistance from a benevolent government or they will remain trapped in poverty, crime and ignorance forever. Most importantly, they will react with massive indignation at the suggestion that the individual behavior and choices of poor people have any significant effect on their economic and personal lives. 

    However, when leftists argue for unrestricted illegal immigration, suddenly being a poor, unskilled person of color in America becomes a boon. Greedy, racist corporations will gladly hire a person of color and lend them money. Leftists claim that people without the benefit of an expensive education, indeed people who cannot even speak or read English and who may even be illiterate in their native languages, can nevertheless not only find work but advance themselves into the middle class in just a few years. They claim that people on the streets of America with literally nothing but the shirts on their backs will not have to turn to crime to support themselves. They claim that illegal aliens do not require social services and therefore don’t raises taxes. They claim that immigrants pay for the needs of their own children and elderly. They claim that without any assistance from a benevolent government immigrants can not only make themselves happy and prosperous but contribute greatly to America as a whole. 

    In short, imagine that you took an unskilled, illiterate, innumerate person of color with no economic resources and showed them to a leftist. If you told the leftist they were native-born poor, the leftist would tell you that the person needed massive government help to thrive or even survive. If you told them that the person was an illegal immigrant, they would say that the person needed no significant help at all. 

    Same person, two different stories. Clearly, the leftist chooses which story to tell based on the leftist’s political needs and not the needs of the poor person. Leftists need to exploit the problems of others to increase the political power and social status of their subculture. Native-born poor are only of use to leftists when they need government help, help that leftists stake a claim on providing. Native-born poor who succeed without the help of leftists do not benefit leftists and indeed leftists scorn them should they raise their voices. Immigrant poor, on the other hand, tend to vote leftist because they come from cultures that do not reward merit and that block an individual’s success unless that person has the protection of political patrons. This makes the leftist story that America is also such a place an easier sell. Leftists can also successfully make a fascist-light appeal to racial solidarity to many immigrants. Therefore, leftists have the motive to essentially import as many left-voting people as possible. To this end, they try to shoot down arguments that poor immigrants need the same help that they claim the poor native-born require. After all, if we accept the leftist arguments about how hostile a place America is for poor people of color, it makes little sense to import even more of them.  

    I thought of this leftist incoherence while reading the comments to this article [h/t Instapundit] about the reality of working at Walmart versus its portrayal in leftist literature. The comments are overwhelmingly about how evil and cruel Walmart and by extension corporate American is, and how it is obvious that people need leftists to protect them and help them succeed. However, what would the comments be if the story had been about an illegal alien working at Walmart? We could safely predict comments about how great it was that someone who started with nothing could better themselves and contribute to America by working their way up that great ladder of corporate opportunity. 

    Objectively, in contemporary America, individual behavior and choice exert a greater effect on an individual’s ultimate success than do broad social forces. Immigrants do on the whole arrive with nothing and work their way up the economic ladder with far, far less support from the state than do native-born poor. They can do so because they behave differently than native-born poor. They work harder, pursue long-term goals and value family and community. Leftists cannot admit this, however, because if individual behavior determines individual success in America then individual Americans do not need leftist policies and leftists to succeed.

    We need to understand that leftism is not an intellectual construct but rather a social one. Much like the concept of the divine right of kings, all the millions of works of leftist thought exist solely to elevate the social status of a non-productive class of articulate intellectuals and those who identify with them. As the tale of two poverties shows, they don’t have to create a predictive model that can explain the differing outcomes of different people in the same circumstances, they just need to spin a tale targeted to each particular group. 

    At its heart, leftism is not an intellectual pursuit, it is marketing and the product being marketed is the leftists themselves. 

     

    19 Responses to “A Tale of Two Poverties”

    1. Lexington Green Says:

      Nicely done.

    2. sol vason Says:

      Maybe we can arrange a trade. Lets send one of our current poor back to South America for each hispanic who illegally crosses the border. Then we we can wipe out US poverty quickly. I think the South American approach to poverty tends to create hard working poor people who quickly become richer in the US. Our poor just stay poor.

    3. John Says:

      About 13 years ago, in college, my Latin/Women’s Studies professor offered extra credit to anyone who went to see a friend of hers speak one evening. The friend was a classics professor whose credentials, as announced, included having onced participated in a “Gaia walk” — whatever that was.

      This academic’s book was about women in ancient Athens. Her presentation expressed two ideas: (1) women in ancient Athens were oppressed by patriarchy and (2) women in ancient Athens were very liberated, compared to the patriarchy of modern American society.

      During the Q&A session, I pointed out that her two theses seemed to contradict each other. She and my professor were not pleased, and I did not get the full value of extra credit points available.

    4. Hax Vobiscum Says:

      Which “leftists” are you talking about? There is no monolithic “left” in the U.S.

      You’re point would be a lot easier to understand if you gave specific examples of what you’re talking about it.

      I consider myself a liberal who supports both welfare state capitalism and laissez faire immigration, but I make none of the irrational arguments you’re attributing to “leftists.”

    5. Shannon Love Says:

      Hax Vobiscum,

      Which “leftists” are you talking about? There is no monolithic “left” in the U.S.

      Let’s say the 30% most self-identified leftist. (Most people define themselves as liberal or conservative but I find those terms inaccurate.) Specifically I have in mind academics and activist who create and articulated theoretical structure on which they base their arguments.

      I consider myself a liberal who supports both welfare state capitalism and laissez faire immigration…

      So, you believe that poor people in America can’t improve their lot without extensive government assistance but that large numbers immigrants who have even worse preparation and support don’t? If we can’t provide education, housing, medical care and jobs for our native born poor, does it make sense to import more poor people? What do you say to immigration restriction advocates who say that illegal immigration increases social welfare cost, increase crime, depress wages etc?

      …but I make none of the irrational arguments you’re attributing to “leftists.”

      I think you probably do you just never see them juxtaposition like they are here. Of course, there are exceptions. Perhaps you could flesh your thinking out some.

    6. veryretired Says:

      I also read that article and tried to wade through the comments but gave up after the 50th repetition of “Walmart is evil, capitalism is evil, corporations are evil, etc, etc.” The thing that struck me as interesting was the absolute fury of many of the commenters that Walmart dared to be so successful as a profitable company while defying their demands that it fundamentally change its entire business model in response to their complaints.

      No where in the comments did I read anything like, “I am an experienced retail upper level manager and Walmart could be even more successful if it did x,y, and z.” Instead, it was very clear that, for many of the critics, Walmart’s success or failure as a business was immaterial to their demands. Their beliefs categorized Walmart as wrong and exploitive, and only their concerns mattered.

      If Walmart eventually suffered losses, or even went out of business, because it acceeded to their demands, it wouldn’t matter one bit to the critics. When tens of thousands of people were put out of work, they would simply sniff and call for taxpayer funded job retraining, to be paid for by taxes on the other companies they hadn’t managed to drive out of business yet.

      It was very clear that to several of the commenters, businesses existed for the purpose of providing suitable jobs with good wages and benefits. They were just supposed to be there, providing, without any ishy, selfish concerns about profit margins, or return on capital investment, or long term viability.

      The author mentioned the current pathetic state of General Motors, to a chorus of denunciations for his having any doubts about the value of mass unionism. It was clear that the commenters could not have cared any less either about the problems at GM, or the potential that Walmart, or any company, might end up there if enough costs and mandates were legislated onto their backs by politicians that had little or no concern with the viability of a business as opposed to the viability of their next campaign as a “defender of the poor and underpriviledged.”

      It is truly remarkable how few of the statist left ever seem to notice that the greatest manufacturers of poor and underpriviledged masses in history were those very societies who turned all economic activity over to the control of politicians whose alleged concern was some form of social vision, not the dirty, greedy pursuit of profits and commercial expansion.

      There is an old saw about how fools and their money are soon parted. Unfortunately, it appears that societies of fools and their accumulated wealth, built on centuries of hard work, innovation, and careful attention to making an honest dollar, may soon suffer a similar fate.

    7. Ginny Says:

      The left speaks of diversity – as one of the more interesting (and attuned to my experiences) commentors notes, Wal-Mart personifies diversity.

      My impression has been that when we have a large number of immigrants, the distinction between rich and poor increases. That is because the immigrants have a learning curve – they need to learn English, they often are coming here because they don’t have the appropriate skills for a society that is more technological. This was true from 1880-1920; it is true now. If this is true (and I suspect it is at least partially true), then we need to try to provide some cushion, perhaps, but the real point is to assimiilate that group of immigrants, encourage the rather natural desire to seek a better life for their children, and hope that within a couple of generations they have become middle class. It is not to make them middle class, now. They cost too much – that is, they don’t have the skills to justify higher wages. Neither did I when I delivered newspapers in 5th grade, worked in a magazine store in high school, or a mental hospital during the night shift when I was an undergrad. I did do enough to get paid something. But then, as brilliant as Ben Franklin was, he always realized it was dishonest to get out of his indenture to his brother – who trained him, and was then beginning to get some money back for the money he’d invested in that training. (And most of us are neither as industrious nor as brilliant as Ben – his brother probably had begun to get his money back before Ben skipped town.)

      Some comments imply that if you are functional you’re not really living the “poor” life style. Is this an argument for a “Brave New World”? When these people aren’t being Orwellian they are being Huxleyian. Just because the guy went to college didn’t mean he was able to live better – of course, sticking to a job, making sensible choices gave him the relative comfort he gained. Being a really undependable employee – lighting down for a short period and moving on – may indeed be characteristic of many peoples’ lives, but it’s hardly the fault of the companies who invested time in their training that such employees do not build up a nest egg.

    8. Hax Vobiscum Says:

      So, you believe that poor people in America can’t improve their lot without extensive government assistance but that large numbers immigrants who have even worse preparation and support don’t?

      No one I know of believes that. “Can’t” is a little extreme, isn’t it? “Extensive” means what?
      Policy isn’t made, or at least shouldn’t be made, on the basis of possible outcomes, but on likely ones.

      Public schools don’t really help the poor “improve their lot” as you say, as much as they provide low-income children with an opportunity to do so.
      Poor children can’t be expected to simply teach themselves, can they? The practical and moral benefits to society of setting a bottom line below which we will not allow any child to fall below outweigh the costs.
      Look around the world. Places without public schools are the absolute worst. Madrassas thrive in Pakistan only because they are the only place poor people can send children to learn to read.
      Poor children can’t learn if they don’t eat enough or can’t get treated when they are sick, so there also needs to be a minimum income and health care available to them. There is no other way I am aware of to guarantee equal opportunity to these children. It seems obvious that this is a worthy investment in human development, economic stability and crime prevention.
      One of the costs of welfare state capitalism is the creation of a culture of poverty in which some poor people become too dependent on state handouts. If this happens too often, there is the risk that the psychic deprivations of the culture of poverty will outweigh the benefits and, indeed, become worse than the deprivations of poverty itself.
      I don’t think this has happened in America, but it is certainly a point worth debating constructively.
      All of this applies equally, of course, to the children of immigrants. If we do not make learning available to these children, the benefit they provide to society as adults is likely to be much less than if we do.
      There are important differences, of course, and no one — other than libertarian extremists (anarchists?) — suggests that immigrants and/or their children deserve exactly the same benefits as native-born children.
      The data I have shows that, overall, immigrants contribute far more to the U.S. economy than they take out of it. That’s partly because extremely few arrive with children, probably because its so highly impractical to do so.
      The data show as well that Shannon’s description of immigrants as having “worse preparation and support” is wildly inaccurate. Almost all immigrants arrive prepared to survive on their own initiative. The same cannot be said of very low-income children born here. They arrive unprepared to survive on their own and, without public schools and access to adequate nutrition and health care, are unlikely to thrive.
      For me, the debate over the morality of helping poor people is a waste of time. How obvious does it have to be that some help is good and too much is bad?
      Any useful discussion will be rigorous in tallying the costs and benefits and won’t exaggerate.

      And, as for who’s a “leftist.” Shouldn’t you be critiquing the policies of the Obama administration, rather than the unidentified theories of anonymous academics?

    9. Jack Diederich Says:

      Shannon,

      I think Hax has a point. To paint the left as all the left has a strong strawman component. Your strongest point is in your conclusion which wasn’t well developed in the body.

      the tale of two poverties shows, they don’t have to create a predictive model that can explain the differing outcomes of different people in the same circumstances, they just need to spin a tale targeted to each particular group.

      I live in Boston and know lots of lefties including some unreformed Marxists. They don’t believe much uniformly other than “capitalism is not a social program” (one heck of a non-sequitor). As you emphasized in your conclusion the biggest quirk of the left is that it is a congregation of different grievances. They may rhyme but no one on the left holds all of them.

    10. Shannon Love Says:

      Hax Vobiscum,

      I can only presume that you haven’t actually read any of the political debates over poverty policy or illegal immigration.

      The data show as well that Shannon’s description of immigrants as having “worse preparation and support” is wildly inaccurate. Almost all immigrants arrive prepared to survive on their own initiative. The same cannot be said of very low-income children born here. They arrive unprepared to survive on their own and, without public schools and access to adequate nutrition and health care, are unlikely to thrive.

      Well, were actually talking about illegal immigrants. Legal immigrants are well equipped to survive because it is legal requirement for everyone except refugees. Most illegal immigrants come from the bottom rung of their respective societies. They have poor skills even for jobs in their countries must less America.

      Seriously, you think an 18 year old Mexican from a village of the Yucatan, who can’t even speak English and who maybe functionally illiterate even Spanish, and who has no skills is better prepared than an 18 year old native born who speaks english and has had the benefits of an American education? I mean, really?

      If an 18 year old illegal immigrant can make it here without special support why can’t the native born? In that case, why do we need to support poor adults. Or conversely, if the native born cannot succeed without a great deal of support (past the age of 18) then it is reasonable to believe that the illegal immigrant cannot make it either. In that case, it would make little sense to import more poor people until we can adequately take care of their own.

      How obvious does it have to be that some help is good and too much is bad?

      You’d be surprised. Conservatives in the early sixities warned that social welfare could backfire. Charles Murry wrote “Loosing Ground” in the mid-80’s which showed that social welfare hurt the people it was supposed to help. He was pilloried. 10 years later it had become conventional wisdom when welfare reform went through. A lot of people today still advocate for unlimited lifetime welfare just as we had in the period of 1965-1995.

      Any useful discussion will be rigorous in tallying the costs and benefits and won’t exaggerate.

      This isn’t that discussion. This is a discussion about how leftist use two diametrically opposite models of poverty for people in the same circumstances. Now in reality, illegal immigrants succeed and rise out of poverty because they have the correct attitudes which create behaviors which improve their fortunes. That is how America still works. Work hard, save, delay gratification and you can pull yourself up. That works no matter where you were born or how low you start out. That is not how leftist view America when it comes to native born poor.

      And, as for who’s a “leftist.”

      No offense but I always know I’ve scored when people start saying things like, “Who are these mythical leftist you keep talking about? Right and left? Never heard of them.”

      Of course, I do presume you do have some understanding of the intellectual history of American political thought as well as its present manifestations.

    11. Shannon Love Says:

      Jack Diederich ,

      To paint the left as all the left has a strong strawman component.

      I really don’t have a choice. It’s a 1,000 word blog post not a 200,000 word book. I have to presume that the reader will understand what I mean by left and right and that I am painting with a broad brush to explore generalities of political behavior.

      If you ask people to rate themselves as on the right or the left and then ask them questions such as “do poor people need social welfare” and “do immigrants need social welfare” you would see the pattern that I describe.

    12. stuart philler Says:

      …the usual SL tirade of abstract nonsense with no supporting evidence but mere name calling.

    13. Shannon Love Says:

      Stuart Philler,

      …no supporting evidence but mere name calling.

      My supporting evidence is a presumption that the reader is an intelligent person who has been watching the political debate over welfare policy and illegal immigration over the last 10-20 years. The positions of the left as outlined in the parent are simply givens for anyone who has paid the lest bit of attention.

      If you been living in a cave these last couple of decades, tell me what you find non-obvious and I will provide you with examples.

    14. Levi Juhl Says:

      What’s funny is that “Hax Vobiscum” didn’t seem to have any trouble with dumping people into broad political categories over at Patterico’s when it suited his purpose.

      That he came onto this site just to whine about your doing so means that you must have hit really close to home.

    15. Hax Vobiscum Says:

      Is that really your best shot, Levi? You really think that the fact that I chose to comment here means I must really agree with what I’m responding to? That’s a tautology with no taut, but at least it is a cliche on right wing blogs, so it does have that going for it.

      And, for the record, my post on patterico specified militarists, right-wing Christian zealots and anti-tax crusaders. It also focused on what Bush said and did. That’s miles away from a lame attempt to lump fringe right-wing academics together with “the right” at large.

    16. Shannon Love Says:

      Hax Vobiscum,

      And, for the record, my post on patterico specified militarists, right-wing Christian zealots and anti-tax crusaders

      Heh, What’s militarist? What’s a right-wing Christian zealot? What’s an anti-tax crusader? Each of those terms is far fuzzier than leftist. You talk as if you had zeroed in on cleanly defined groups but all you’ve done is string together several pejorative phrases. I at least could just go up and ask people, “Do you consider yourself on the left or the right?” and get an answer. No one would describe themselves with the phrases you slapped on them.

      The idea that you can’t lump people together ideologically, that broad patterns in political thought do not exist, is very silly. I think my arguments about leftist are generally accurate. You have not provided any evidence of any leftist who do not fit the pattern I laid out. You yourself fit the pattern.

    17. Hax Vobiscum Says:

      “Most illegal immigrants come from the bottom rung of their respective societies. They have poor skills even for jobs in their countries must less America.”

      The part of the picture sitting right outside Shannon’s logic bubble is that most of these men and women have unrivaled skills for the jobs they take here. I have a feeling Shannon wouldn’t last beyond the first 30 minutes of a shift picking lettuce, or cutting the peckers off cattle carcasses at three a minute or stacking bags of shavings at a sawmill. I know I wouldn’t. That kind of work takes skill — brute skill, but definitely skill, in that it’s something not everyone can do.
      Sure, anyone can bend over and pull a plant out of the ground. But how many can do it quickly, efficiently, all day long. I can write a beautiful sentence, once in a while, but I’m not planning a career as a novelist.
      Most workers that come here aren’t fleeing Mexico because they don’t have the work skills it takes to make it there. They flee because they don’t have the family connections or political doggedness/lack of ethics it takes to thrive in that society.

      And you’re dead right, Shannon. You can always find some moronic leftists who say all kinds of self-contradictory things. But isn’t a lot more fun, not mention persuasive, to challenge the smartest liberals, rather than the dumbest ones?

    18. sol vason Says:

      Senor Love,
      You ask “Seriously, you think an 18 year old Mexican from a village of the Yucatan, who can’t even speak English and who maybe functionally illiterate even Spanish, and who has no skills is better prepared than an 18 year old native born who speaks english and has had the benefits of an American education? I mean, really?”

      The difference is that a few people have the will to succeed – the Fire in the Belly. Most others do not. That is why Steelers win Super Bowl and Nadal beats Fedderer.

      If someone walks from South American to the Rio Grande, dodging the police
      and bandits all along the way, with sole purpose of finding job and sending money to save his family, then he will succeed no matter what.

      I think True Americans are born not only in the United States but also in Central America and in South America. Americans from the United States are fat and sleepy. Americans from South who immigrate are lean and driven.

      Viva Anerica.

    19. Shannon Love Says:

      Hax Vobiscum,

      I have a feeling Shannon wouldn’t last beyond the first 30 minutes of a shift picking lettuce, or cutting the peckers off cattle carcasses at three a minute or stacking bags of shavings at a sawmill.

      As a matter of fact, I grew up on a farm/ranch so I have done those jobs or variants there of.

      That kind of work takes skill — brute skill, but definitely skill, in that it’s something not everyone can do.

      Illegal immigrants are all doing work classified as low skill. Nobody trains from childhood to stack bags. Anyone can do those jobs with minimal training. I used to do dozens of those kinds of jobs as a matter of course. Most people who grow up in rural areas have. What poor illegal immigrants have that poor Americans do not have is a work ethic superior to almost all native born (except farm people, perhaps). They’re willing to work and they don’t have the attitude that menial labor is beneath them.

      Most workers that come here aren’t fleeing Mexico because they don’t have the work skills it takes to make it there.

      No, the trouble is still that they have only low productivity skill. The most skilled subsistence farmer still cannot produce enough surplus to make a good living. They need to come somewhere where there is tools, energy and organization that will turn there low-skilled but very dogged work into something much more valuable.

      No one ever said, “Juan, you are the best pecker cutter in our village, you must go to the north to seek your fortune!”

      But isn’t a lot more fun, not mention persuasive, to challenge the smartest liberals, rather than the dumbest ones?

      You still haven’t explained to me what viewpoints on that I described to leftist you would consider dumb. I think all the things I listed are in fact widely common, especially on the leftmost 30% of the political spectrum. I would point you to any debate on illegal immigration or social welfare in California for example.

      Again, in separation I think you agree with with each of the concepts I attribute to the left. It is only when you combine them together to create a coherent unitary model that they start to look foolish to you due to their inherent contradictions.