FOX News on how to make excuses for serfdom

Earlier this month, Jordan Weissmann at Slate's Moneybox column wrote two interesting—and highly disturbing—pieces on the material nature of poverty in the United States. The first details why poverty is still miserable, and the second includes graphs on how the poor spend their income. Both are well worth the time to read in full.

And they're important, because it's not hard at all to hear a curious sort of reasoning in favor of this status quo from the likes of FOX News. On the July 19, 2011 edition of Your World With Neil Cavuto, guest host Stuart Varney and guest Robert Rector discussed the following statistics about America's poor families, and how the "definition of poor families [isn't] what it used to be":


  • 99.6% have a refrigerator;
  • 81.4% have a microwave;
  • 78.3% have air conditioning;
  • 63.7% have satellite or cable TV;
  • 54.5% have cell phones;
  • 48.6% have a coffee maker (to which Varney quipped "I'm not surprised, they're only about ten bucks");
  • 32.8% have a computer;
  • 32.3% have two or more televisions (showing two widescreen HDTVs, of course);
  • 25% have a dishwasher.
The two go on to discuss how "living standards" for the poor have steadily increased over the past few decades, and that the federal reckoning of who counts as "living in poverty" doesn't accurately reflect this change (implying, of course, that we're counting too many people as poor and therefore inflating the welfare rolls).

It would be pessimistic to brush aside these statistics and not say that the poor in America are, relatively speaking, pretty well off—it's just true that being poor in America is materially better than being poor in many, many other countries. We should (cautiously!) give our civilization a pat on the back for at least making "poor" not so bad. (That's really the least of our achievements, but it's an achievement nonetheless.)

But it's simply not enough to be materially better at the bottom of the economic heap. It'd be nice to know that poverty was a temporary state, and that, barring a disability or some other extenuating factor, anyone could rise back up into the middle class or beyond. Moreover, we should be concerned about stability: living standards don't mean much when you're one of a dozen minor mishaps away from being out on the street. That's the kind of situation that subtly destroys a person's capacity to think straight.

Yet that's exactly the situation our nation's poor families find themselves in. From the first Moneybox post, while the prices of cellphones, televisions, and computers have fallen relative to inflation over the past nine years (2005 - 2014), prices for education, food, health care, child care, and vehicle maintenance have all risen. These are exactly the products and services that not only help someone lift themselves (bootstraps!) out of poverty, but they're the products and services that form a buffer between "mere" American poverty and outright homelessness.

This is the new narrative of oligarchy: As long as everyone's comfortable, why should anyone complain? If the material comforts of life are easy to buy, then there's no need for concern about the rich getting richer. What's the harm?

And disgustingly, but not unexpectedly, you get those just far enough on the political fringe—such marginalized folks as editors of the Wall Street Journal, or candidates for the Presidency of the United States—who claim that black Americans had it better under slavery, because it "kept families together" and gave them something to do, rather than make them dependent on the government. That reminds me of Ta-Nahesi Coates' absolutely tremendous (and cosmically horrific) piece in The Atlantic about—let's not mince words here—the centuries-long war waged against black Americans, their lives and livelihoods, even unto the modern day. But that's worth another post or two by itself, so I'll just have to let that go for now.

So let's pull the focus back to poor families more generally. We simply can't accept the oligarchy-narrative and remain content with snapshots of material comfort. The only proper consideration is to the dynamics of poverty and wealth creation in this country. If poor people stay poor, especially while the very rich get even more stupendously rich, we're sliding back to the bad old model of pseudo-feudal hierarchy. We deserve better than that, as a civilization. Let the last six thousand years of lords and serfs remain in the past.