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Get Ready for the Poverty Deniers

Posted: 09/26/11 10:27 PM ET

I knew this was coming. It's a trend I wrote about last year. As the US economy continues to struggle, the free-market, get-the-government-off-my-back organizations will become more and more insistent that unemployed Americans are losers and loafers too lazy to help themselves.

The latest evidence of this propaganda campaign surfaced a few weeks ago when the Heritage Foundation published a "report" (a word that sounds very official) asserting that the "actual standard of living of America's poor -- in terms of amenities in the home, housing, food consumption, and nutrition -- is far higher than expected."

The basic message is, "Hey things aren't so bad." Lots of people with little or no income may have a computer, TV, or a dishwasher. The logic is inescapable. How can people claim to be living at or below the poverty line when they don't have to wash dirty dishes by hand? I think proponents this idea should be referred to as "poverty deniers."

According to the Heritage folks, the word "poverty" is very misleading because it conjures up images of ragged, starving refugees in places like Somalia. This mantra is now making its way around the online universe. You can see its effect in the comments readers are posting post about news stories dealing with poverty and high unemployment. The best one I've read so far declared, "Anybody living in the USA is not poor."

It's the sort of claim that makes good campaign fodder, like holding up a copy of the want ads in front of a crowd and announcing, "Anyone who's looking for a job should just look right here!" What they never mention is that in most cities right now, dozens if not hundreds of applicants are chasing each of those job postings.

Poverty denial isn't new. Some great examples can be found in Hard Times, Studs Terkel's 1970 collection of oral histories from the Great Depression (or, as people called it back then, The Big Trouble). One person who made it through the decade in good shape was Jerome Zerbe. He earned steady and substantial money by photographing visitors to New York City nightspots like the Rainbow Room and selling the photos to newspaper society pages.

One of Terkel's questions was, "Do you remember ever seeing apple sellers in the city?" and Zerbe answered, "No, there were none of those. Not in New York. Never, never."

When Terkel followed up with, ""You don't recall bread lines or stuff like that?" Zerbe said, "I never saw one. Never in New York. If they were, they were in Harlem or down in the Village."

Lots of Americans unaffected by the Big Trouble had no difficulty believing that economic conditions of the 1930s were not bad at all. Like the poverty deniers of today, they tended to look at the jobless rate as an attitude problem and had anecdotal evidence to support their beliefs.

One of Jerome Zerbe's other assertions was that he once gave a quarter to a panhandler and then later saw the guy getting picked up by a woman, presumably his wife, who was driving a Cadillac. Stories about poor people driving Cadillacs go back a long way.

There is indeed an attitude problem in this country. It's the kind of attitude that encourages sweeping, simplistic generalities like, "Anybody living in the USA is not poor." In fact, many Americans are poor, their numbers are growing, and dismissing them with contempt and ridicule won't help the situation.

But if our economy continues to stagger along with no significant improvement in sight, look for the poverty deniers to turn up the volume and intensity of their message. And if that message ever gains widespread acceptance, we are all in really big trouble.