Published on Saturday, March 3, 2001 in the Denver Post
Poor, Poorer, Poorest:
The Politics of Poverty
by Tony Robinson
Don't feed the Gators!" read a U.S. representative's sign during the welfare reform debate. "If we feed them, wild wolves become dependent," noted another. Comparing the poor to wild animals, these legislators continued our political lurch back to a time when poverty was blamed on inferior human beings and not on the flawed political economy of society.
It's a neat trick, this willed innocence that hides the truth: that poverty's problems are a result of political choices made by the rich and the powerful that further impoverish the poor. The iron fist of power always needs a velvet glove of persuasion - the drapery of a justifying philosophy to legitimate the dominance of wealth over want. This need explains diatribes about the brutality of gators, the dependency of wolves, the pathology of the poor and the virtue of the wealthy. Such theories argue that poverty is a fact of nature and results from the pathology of the weak, thus undercutting claims for collective obligation to design a better society.
There is an alternative perspective that poverty is not natural and that society is a creation of political choices, not the unchanging law of the jungle. There is the view that politics creates poverty and exacerbates its problems. How? Consider the following examples. The last 20 years have seen a dramatic retreat from the New Deal philosophy that housing for all is a fundamental right. The HUD budget for subsidized housing has declined precipitously since Reagan. Subsidized luxury redevelopments now dominate the official agenda (e.g., the Denver Pavilions, LoDo lofts), resulting in disappearing low-income housing stock and gentrifying neighborhoods.
Here in Denver, officials are pouring millions into the Stapleton redevelopment project, where thousands of new housing units will go up. The plan is to market most of these housing units to the wealthiest 20 percent of Denver's residents, while setting aside only 1.6 percent of the 12,000 units for the one-third of Denver's residents earning under $33,000 a year. This is how politics exacerbates the problems of poverty.
Consider tax politics. President Bush is proposing a massive tax cut that bestows about 43 percent of the money on the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans while starving important social investments like health care, schools and housing.
Meanwhile, the IRS has been pushed by Congress to increase its audit rates of low-income taxpayers. The audit rate for low- income taxpayers since 1988 has increased by one-third, while the audit rate for upper-income taxpayers has decreased by 90 percent. Low-income taxpayers are now 18 percent more likely to be audited than upper-income taxpayers.
Local officials also play this game of tax welfare for the rich. City officials expended great energy securing voter support for the taxpayer subsidy for the new Broncos stadium, while state officials killed a proposal to continue the tax after stadium payoff (with voter approval) in order to generate affordable housing money. Politicians put the corporate welfare stadium tax to a public vote, and lobbied for its passage, but won't allow voters to decide whether to extend the tax to help low-income renters and homeowners.
Consider Denver's recently approved $65 million public subsidy for the luxury Hyatt hotel. Although officials lament the dependency of the poor on welfare, they hand out millions to a powerful international hotel chain. At the same time, officials refused to honor requests to tie this subsidy to an agreement by the Hyatt to allow unfettered union organizing at the hotel.
Multi-million dollar subsidies for luxury hotels: yes. Celebrate welfare recipients moving off the dole and into poverty-wage jobs and joblessness: yes. Official support for union organizing and living-wage jobs at publicly subsidized hotels: no.
In such ways, the privileged make political choices that exacerbate the crisis of the vulnerable, justifying these choices with theories of the pathology of the poor. But politics can be transformed with the understanding that the problems of poverty are a human creation, amenable to human solution.
We have seen moments when the protecting drapery of justifying theory was torn off the powerful, due to counter-organizing and counter-theorizing among the poor and their advocates. The innovations of FDR and LBJ, Denver's stand to protect East Village's low-income housing from luxury redevelopment and Denver's recent enactment of a living-wage ordinance: these innovations were driven by a vision of the dignity of all, a vision made real by politically organizing to defeat the politics of the Social Darwinists and supply-siders, the powerful and the privileged.
Once again, politics of, by and for the poor must be revived.
Tony Robinson is a professor of political science at CU-Denver and is the director of the Westside Outreach Center for Community Development. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2001 The Denver Post