The holiday season is always celebrated as a time to reflect on what we are thankful for, spend quality time with our families, and eat copious amounts of food. The holidays are also when many volunteer their time and/or money to help the less fortunate. However, the poor seem to get the most attention during the holidays, but indifference (or hostility) the rest of the year.
One reason for this disconnect is that most Americans consider themselves middle class, whether they’re too rich or poor to technically be in the category. In America, to be middle class is really a state of mind. We have an image of ourselves as a nation of strivers, constantly aspiring to financial success – the American Dream. According to academics, many Americans believe that poor people are in that situation because of bad choices, or that they simply didn’t work hard enough. However, outside of America, most believe that people become poor from back luck or outside forces. This cultural difference partly explains why poverty is stigmatized in the United States and why the social safety net in the is so paltry compared with other western industrialized countries. Poverty is seen as an individual – not a societal – failure. The poor are marginalized and invisible. The downwardly mobile – the long- term unemployed – suffer in silence and shame, but still cling to the “middle class” identity. Even our Democratic Party puts poverty issues in the background in favor of focusing on the struggles of the middle class.
Many of our Democratic leaders speak a lot about the plight of middle class families, who have been squeezed from 40 years of failed “trickle-down” economics and the Great Recession. Democrats like to talk about strengthening the middle class. We support unions and raising the minimum wage. We defend the Affordable Care Act. We want to help homeowners who are struggling with underwater mortgages. We want to make college more affordable. We support strengthening Social Security and other programs to help retirees. And we support clean energy to combat global warming. These are all worthy goals. But what about the concerns of people who can’t even get to the middle class? Rarely do our political leaders mention the poor, or talk about issues that directly affect them, other than the minimum wage and Medicaid. That should change. We need to focus on and organize around the following issues as well:
- End mass incarceration and the Drug War
- End the privatized prison industry
- End the school-to-prison pipeline
- Abolish laws that criminalize poverty
- Expand affordable housing and end homelessness
- Endorse free or low-cost higher education (instead of propping up the student loan industry)
- Endorse free or low-cost, publicly provided childcare
- Prioritize the improvement and expansion of public transit
- Endorse equal access to quality healthcare (recommit to expanding Medicare to all)
- End hunger and malnutrition through efforts such as eliminating “food deserts”
- Fight for environmental justice by stopping pollution in poor communities
Unfortunately, many poor people don’t vote, and are too busy trying to survive than engage in civic culture. Therefore, their concerns are given less importance. So we must support efforts to politically empower the poor. That would be a great holiday gift.