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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 8/18/11

Why Anti-Poverty Messaging Doesn't Work in the US

By Francis Holland  Posted by Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall (about the submitter)       (Page 1 of 1 pages)   13 comments
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Francis Holland
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(comment posted on my blog at

I really like the way you are systematically analyzing and refuting specific the specific macro-messages that have put our minds in a mental straight-jacket.

I wrote an article in 2006 entitled, "Why John Edwards' Candidacy Won't Resonate w/America" ( The article was really about America's attitudes toward the poor and Blacks, and the fact that no one would be elected whose campaign was principally messaged about helping the poor and Blacks. 

There simply aren't enough people to who identify as "poor;" there aren't enough Black votes to win a general election based on focusing on helping us Blacks (to the perceived detriment of whites); and the majority of American voters are not so . . . altruistic as to elect a president who proposes to help others, but not me. 

It was apparent to me that studies show that very few Americans will admit that they are "poor," even now when Americans' homes, which are typically their largest assets, are "under-water."  A striking number of Americans owe more on their mortgages than their homes and condos are worth, should they try to sell them, and so they actually have a negative net worth, particularly when combined with credit card debt and student loans.  And their 401(k)s have lost a considerable part of their value.

And yet Americans won't respond to political messages based on helping "the poor" (people with negative net worth, with debts that exceed their assets) because Americans believe in the following memes that were turned into a presidential campaign by Ronald Reagan:

(1)  The poor is someone else and not me;
(2)  The poor is Black people and Black people don't deserve anymore help;
(3)  The poor is welfare-dependent households, and these households are headed by shiftless and lazy welfare queens;
(4)  Anyone can get a job if the really want one (and make a wage that takes them out of poverty and negative net worth;
(5)  I might be rich soon, so I don't want to make life difficult for the rich, but I am not poor and so the poor can go . . . correct themselves.

You pointed out a number of macro messages and these specific political messages above fall within the macro attitudes that you have outlined in your recent posts.

Obviously, in retrospect (and as I suspected), John Edwards was not the altruistic savior he was presenting himself to be, and was driven by a zeal for election rather than concern about "the poor" or Black people in America.  (As soon as he closed down his presidential campaign, he also closed down a small-bore scholarship program he was running for Blacks in North Carolina.)

Most important in terms of your above post, John Edwards' message and his campaign were doomed from the beginning because most Americans simply don't believe --according to polls and research--that they are from among "the poor," even if they are hungry and can't afford to by food.

This is why successful politicians are directing their messages toward the "middle class."  Americans in poverty don't identify with the term "poor," but they identify, at least in terms of aspirations, with the "middle class."  And so politicians say they are going to help "the middle class," even when they know that the substance of the programs they are proposing are addressing the problems of those who were once middle class but are now clearly poor, like job retraining and unemployment benefits and Pell Grants and low-interest student loans, that ideally (but not always really) would help people lift themselves into the middle class.

The middle class gets smaller and smaller as wealth becomes more concentrated at the top and so, to a significant degree, campaigns directed at the middle class are directed at a class that hardly exists anymore (but doesn't acknowledge it).  One parent with one job at Walmart and another job as a bagger in a supermarket, and a house in foreclosure, is NOT middle class.  It's working poor. But these people are the target for messages "for the middle class."

Unions have been decimated in the United States in part because most people no longer identify with the term "worker" and they think helping workers in inherently socialist.  This is an impression rather than something I have seen documented. 

Meanwhile, Europe manages to hold onto many more programs like national health care because they have mobilized the "middle class" more successfully and they don't buy into much of the messaging that in the United States is seen as sacred. They're not afraid to be called socialists or to advocate programs that help everyone.

As for the post on DailyKos in 2006, I posted it before I and most other leftists became aware that DailyKos is run by Republican CIA-trained member of the El Salvadoran aristocracy ( )

Anti-poverty messaging worked in the 1960's, when the alternative was riots and large-scale disorder.  If Americans with homes in foreclosure start to seriously listen to and adopt socialist messages again, and to organize (e.g. in unions) like they did during the Great Depression, then we might see some political movement to address the Depression-level emergency of the American "middle class." 

I'm not holding my breath.
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I am a 63 year old American child and adolescent psychiatrist and political refugee in New Zealand. I have just published a young adult novel THE BATTLE FOR TOMORROW (which won a NABE Pinnacle Achievement Award) about a 16 year old girl who (more...)
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