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February: Anti-Poverty
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How Things Changed

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The Lies We Tell

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© President Lyndon B. Johnson's Poverty Tour. US National Archives.

interviews

Instead of Blaming the Poor

by Spencer Piston
February 5, 2021

This interview with Spencer Piston, assistant professor of Political Science at Boston University and author of Class Attitudes in America, was conducted and condensed by franknews.

Spencer | When it comes to the rich, the dominant attitude of the American public is one of resentment. That has a cognitive component, which is the belief that the rich have more than they deserve, and it has an emotional component, which is anger. That attitude leads many people, though not all, to be against policies that benefit the rich and to support policies that would redistribute wealth downward.

frank | Right. In theory, but it doesn't always turn out that way.

As in so many cases, what the public wants is not what the public gets, even in a representative democracy. There are a lot of things that interrupt the connection between public opinion and policymaking.

One is the background of legislators themselves. When the public votes for president, they're not just pulling names out of a hat, they're choosing from the party nominees. These party nominees, the people running for Congress and the people who run for the presidency, tend to be rich, and rich people tend to oppose policies that would redistribute wealth more evenly.

Also, though in general, the public would like to see a downward redistribution of wealth, when it comes to specific policies, political elites, and organized interest groups who do a really good job of convincing the public that those policies are unpalatable.

What are some examples of that?

One example that I talked about a lot about in my book, Class Attitudes in America, is the federal estate tax. This is a tax that only affects large inheritances. Only multi-millionaires are affected by this federal estate tax. But, much of the public doesn't know that, and the reason the public doesn't know that is because political elites and interest groups go around saying that the estate tax affects small family farms. Or they call it a "death tax." Now instead of thinking that wealthy people are the ones affected, dead or dying people, for whom the public has much more sympathy, are the affected group. 

Do you find the same thing more broadly? 

Yes. Another example is mortgage interest tax deduction. Tax deduction primarily benefits wealthy people, because it is only wealthy people who are buying the giant houses that require the giant mortgages that they can then deduct from their taxes. But a lot of people don't think of it that way. They think of homeownership as a middle-class type of issue, but, based on Suzanne Mettler's work and my own, once they learn that the home mortgage interest tax deduction is benefiting rich people, then they become much less supportive of it.

So again, these are cases in which learning a lot about who benefits and who doesn't benefit from different policies really changes public opinion. It's in the interest of those who would build anti-poverty movements to get this information out there. Generally speaking, information is not a progressive panacea. More information does not mean that everyone is going to support progressive efforts. But these things are an exception. 

What role does the media play in this? 

Much of the media follow a horse-race paradigm.

Here's what one side said, here's what the other side said, and here’s who is going to benefit in the race to power. There's much less discussion about who a policy is going to benefit and who it is going to hurt. That's a huge problem. I think part of the reason the media works in that way, is that is what they are trained to do in journalism school. That's is the culture of news media. They also think, and rightly so, that they will sell more stories if they follow the horse-race narrative.

Certainly.

You started by laying out two main reasons why someone votes against their class interest. But to what extent do you think people simply put their racial interests over class interests?

There's never any guarantee that somebody is going to privilege one group membership over another.

I am not really excited about the focus on less wealthy whites in so much of our discourse right now. Whether it's poor whites, working-class whites, middle-class whites, or rich whites, all these groups are similarly involved in racism. I don't think it's working-class whites in particular. Working-class whites are just especially frustrating to some people on the left because they think they should be natural allies due to their class position. It doesn't work that way. You can't take someone's objective position and then assume that they're going to be your ally. You have to reach out to them and win them over. And for many white people, whether they're working class or not, they're not going to be on your side if you're racially progressive.

So I think the question is less about how to appeal to racist whites, working-class or not, and more about how to organize and build the anti-racist left.

To what extent do you see both sides channeling rage in a way that focuses on cultural or symbolic wins over material ones?

In the defense of those who've been focusing on the cultural side, those wins have been a little easier to come by. But when wealth flows up year after year, we have to ask what's the theory and practice of broader material change? I don't want to downplay the importance of symbolic conflict because symbolic victories can lead to material victories, but there absolutely has to be some balance.

Is there a period in history that you can look to as merging those two interests? 

I would say Reconstruction. Reconstruction was a contentious period of course, but it involved descriptive representation. Two of the six black senators in all of U.S. history were elected during Reconstruction. But it wasn't just descriptive representation. For example, The Freedmen's Bureau, as small as it was, and as attacked as it was from its inception, provided many important, material resources to newly freed slaves.

More broadly, I think the Occupy Wall Street movement put issues of economic redistribution from the top down on the policy agenda and in mainstream political discourse. There's potential now, with the Democrats’ unified control of the government, for them to make some big changes, and these changes were made possible in no small part by all of the important organizing work that was done during Occupy Wall Street.

Are you hopeful? 

I do think there's an opportunity in this current moment. The left has some momentum right now. The question is whether the left is going to take that opportunity to do some movement building.

For example, is the conversation going to be about unity and reconciliation right now, or is it going to be about reversing the decline of labor?

The first one is about making the world less contentious in the short term, but the second one is actually building power in service of what needs to be done to fix our country.

I have some hope, but it just depends on how much organizing and mobilizing will be done and how anti-poverty movements, in particular, take advantage of this moment. Biden is of course a moderate, but he's potentially moveable. If anti-poverty activists build the power to move him and other Democrats, then some great things can happen.

Instead of asking why the poor don’t vote to tax the rich, or vote in their supposed interest, what should people be asking? 

To the middle or upper-class liberals who are asking, why aren't poor people on my side, we need to acknowledge that this question is actually a version of blaming the poor. It's the mirror image of conservatives who are blaming the poor for not getting ahead on their own. 

I would challenge liberals to take ownership of what they can do instead of complaining about poor people. What group can you join that is working to build power? Engage in political organizing, which I mean in a broad sense. Political organizing is not just trying to get somebody elected to office, it is also trying to build a social movement. It's normal to read the news and complain about it to friends, but it's not normal to get engaged in the hard work of organizing on a daily or a weekly basis. So let’s make it normal.

Instead of blaming poor people, get to work.