If we're being totally honest about why we haven't found more political will to attack poverty in the U.S., the obstacle isn't mere apathy. It's not simply that we don't prioritize the poor, or devote enough money to lifting them up, or demand of our politicians that they talk about poverty more often. Those would be problems of ambivalence — of not caring enough.
In reality, the hurdle is higher than that: Much of our political rhetoric doesn't simply disregard the poor, it actively disdains them. It treats them as takers, freeloaders, deadbeats. As morally weak and gleefully dependent. And like many narratives that are true in the rare anecdote but false on the whole, this one requires a whole lot of breathless storytelling.
"There’s always been a strain in American politics where you’ve got the middle class, and the question has been 'who are you mad at if you’re struggling, if you’re working but you don’t seem to be getting ahead?'" President Obama said Tuesday at a summit on poverty hosted by Georgetown's Initiative on Catholic Thought and Social Life. "Over the last 40 years, sadly, I think there's been an effort to either make folks mad at folks at the top, or be mad at folks at the bottom."
The latter strategy has been remarkably potent of late.
"I think the effort to suggest that the poor are sponges — leeches, don’t want to work, are lazy, are undeserving — got traction," Obama said. "Look, it’s still being propagated. I have to say that if you watch Fox News on a regular basis, it is a constant menu. They will find folks who make me mad. I don’t know where they find them. 'I don’t want to work, I just want a free Obama phone, or whatever.' And that becomes an entire narrative that gets worked up."
This is a specific jab at Fox News (Obama also went on to indict the media at large). But his point is larger than a political potshot at the network. There's a deep tradition in America of agitating those who aren't well-off against people who have it even worse (picture poor whites in the pre-Civil Rights South directing their ire at blacks who had even less).
The reality is that we'd all be better off — the middle-class included — if poor communities had more opportunity, if poor children didn't grow up to need food stamps, if poor men had the kind of work that enabled them to be stable fathers. In the long run, alleviating poverty (through, say, investment in early childhood education) is actually cheaper than paying for all of its products (in teens who enter the costly criminal justice system, or families who rely on emergency-room care). And that's good for anyone who's a taxpayer and wants their money well-spent.
That is, for the most part, not the conversation we're having while we argue about what poor people buy with food stamps or how the safety net makes them lazy. We fight instead about whether the poor even deserve aid and not what smart programs delivering it should look like. We'll never get to the second question if so many of us are still fuming over the first one. Obama is right to wonder aloud about who keeps posing it, hinting over and over that the answer — do the poor even deserve our help? — is "no."