Poor Have Always Been Portrayed As Lazy Degenerates

Barbara Ehrenreich has a piece at The Atlantic about how expensive it is to be poor. As the author of Nickeled and Dimed, she is an authority on such things and the piece is predictably great.

At one point, she tells a story about the shifting of sentiments about why poor people are poor:

In [conservatives’] view, government programs could do nothing to help the poor because poverty arises from the twisted psychology of the poor themselves. By the Reagan era, it had become a cornerstone of conservative ideology that poverty is caused not by low wages or a lack of jobs and education, but by the bad attitudes and faulty lifestyles of the poor.

Picking up on this theory, pundits and politicians have bemoaned the character failings and bad habits of the poor for at least the past 50 years. In their view, the poor are shiftless, irresponsible, and prone to addiction. They have too many children and fail to get married. So if they suffer from grievous material deprivation, if they run out of money between paychecks, if they do not always have food on their tables—then they have no one to blame but themselves.

Ehrenreich presents this as a new shift, but as best I can tell, this has been a fairly common line throughout our history. It is certainly not an innovation of the last 50 years.

For instance, in a 1947 paper, Duke professor Edgar Thompson expounded upon, among other things, the cause of poverty among poor whites in the South. He starts with an account of how rich whites in the South understood it, giving us an insight into their views:

Upper class whites of the South have been accustomed to account for the laziness and inertia of the poor white as the marks of a biologically degenerate people. When they speculated about him in print they have sometimes made him the descendant of the scum of England, i.e., the indentured servants. Like the traits of Negroes, his traits have been regarded as the constitutional endowments of an entirely different kind of people. If post-Civil War Southerners centered their humor about the Negro “the great body of Southern antebellum humor centered about the poor white.” It was said of him that he was born lazy and had a relapse. He wouldn’t drink coffee for breakfast because it was liable to keep him awake all morning.

From here, he notes that various doctor sorts have explained their problems as a function of them being so poor that they literally eat dirt and are riddled with chronic diseases like hookworm. Remarkably, Thompson rejects this explanation, saying that it has the causation backwards:

[T]he probability remains that hookworm is itself symptomatic of an even more basic condition. This is, not inherent laziness, but a tradition of improvidence, moral degeneracy, lack of ambition, and indifference to profitable labor. It is a tradition traceable to social and economic factors in the poor white’s connections with the rest of the community. What is missing is a sense of purpose or a clear-cut conception of the meaning of his existence. His state of aimlessness, of purposelessness, and of footlooseneess expresses itself not merely in laziness and general inefficiency, but also in demoralizing habits, crime, insanity, and disease.

Thompson is just one example of course. It reaches back further than 1947. As Wayne Flynt details in his book Dixie’s Forgotten People, there are writings from post-Civil War Freedman’s Bureau workers talking about poor whites. Flynt details the writings of one agency worker, John William De Forest, who recorded very similar sentiments as Thompson, including that (Flynt’s words) “Poor whites lacked ambition; they were violent, sexually promiscuous people who did not respect human life.”

These old theories of poverty are almost exactly verbatim what you hear today some 150 years later. Old theories of white poverty are especially consonant with what you see today because they were almost always about what amounted to cultural degeneracy, as the racial degeneracy theories offered to explain black poverty were not as available (though some arguments certainly get at that idea). As those racist theories have been driven out of respectable discourse, only the culture-focused theories really remain.

Of course, these are not theories made in good faith; rather, they are rhetorical flurries meant to excuse distributing our national income so unequally that it leaves tens of millions of people struggling to meet their basic needs.