January 5, 2006

Fighting the idea of comparative comfort

This is the first article in a series that will focus on the rhetorical framework of poverty as a political issue in the United States.

In its Christmas issue, the formidable British weekly The Economist published an article on poverty in America and Africa. The article used the stories of two men, one, an unemployed American from Kentucky, the other, a Congolese doctor from Kinshasa, to compare poverty in those parts of the world. By the end of the article, the author felt comfortable making the following conclusion: “If poor Americans were to compare their standard of living with what is normal elsewhere in the world, let alone in Congo, they would see they have little cause for discontent.”

The idea that poor Americans should take comfort in the relative luxury they enjoy when compared to the poor in other parts of the world is insulting to Americans.

Americans have never been content to evaluate our own progress on the basis of others. Have we ever been cheered about our own economic stagnation when we see the economic ruin of others? Do women who are confronted with misogyny in this country find comfort in the fact that women are not allowed to drive a car in others? Should the press, when stonewalled by the American government, say to themselves, “Well at least we’re not China”?

Americans pointedly avoid the notion of comparative success. And we should continue to do so. For ultimately, we are not comparing our nation to other countries but to our own ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence and burned into our national identity through decades of struggle. Americans should never give up on any issue of social justice just because we are doing better than someone else.

This argument—articulated not just by The Economist but by countless academics, journalists, and citizens—at first seems simply misguided. But upon closer examination, the argument is actually malicious. The argument that the poor in America shouldn’t complain because there are people far worse off in other parts of the world is not used to justify action in the latter, but rather inaction in the former. In short, it is a claim often used by reactionaries not to elicit sympathy for Africans but to discourage sympathy for Americans.

In other words, the argument articulated in The Economist is just one more rhetorical flourish used to discourage any genuine attempt to alleviate poverty in the United States. Just like the argument that the poor are poor because they choose to be, the argument that the poor in America are really not that poor is a way to rationalize the idea that in a nation that hopes to offer opportunity to its citizens, many Americans are never afforded the chance to pull themselves out of poverty.

I am not saying that poor Americans are as poor as poor Africans. I am not saying that we should ignore poverty in other countries. What I am saying is this. First, there should not be a hierarchy of victimhood. Whether a person is poor in Kentucky or Kinshasa, he deserves our help. And helping people in both those places are not mutually exclusive.

Second, poverty in Kinshasa and poverty in Kentucky are very different problems that require very different solutions. Helping someone in Kinshasa is a question of getting badly needed resources like food and medicine to the country, and, once it has reached the country, making sure it gets to the people who need it.

Poverty in Kentucky on the other hand is less a question of basic resources and more a problem of opportunity and support. But these differences should not discourage action on either front.

Finally, poverty in Kinshasa and Kentucky are fundamentally different problems for the United States, not simply because of how we would go about solving it, but because of how we go about talking about it.

For Kinshasa, we are citizens of a country that Lincoln called “the last, best hope of mankind,” and we should act like it. We have a larger responsibility to the world to ensure that when we stretch out our arms beyond our shores it is not always to strike a distant land but to lend help to those whose in need.

For Kentucky, we must look inward. We need to return to the promise, inherent in our founding and repeatedly invoked in our history, that this nation will afford all its citizens opportunity and justice. The story of America is the story of including those who have been excluded from the promise of the Declaration. We cannot continue to exclude 40 million poor Americans.

It is precisely for this reason that poor Americans do have cause for discontent. They have cause because they are citizens of a nation that prides itself in its promise of opportunity to all its citizens. They have cause because many of them work long hours, long weeks, and long years, and are still unable to break out of the cycle of poverty. They have cause because children in every state of this country are being born into a society that promises that they can create their own happiness, only to live their lives in an unending nightmare of sickness, drugs, and violence. They have cause for discontentment. And so do we all. What’s more we have cause for action. What we seem to lack is a sincere commitment by our government to fight poverty at home and abroad.