I thought I’d start by shooting down our government’s dollar figures for how many Americans are living under poverty. One need not be a financial genius to figure out how badly the number of poor people in America is being underestimated. If you happen to accept these figures, you arrive at an estimate of about 12% of the United States population, or 36,460,000 people, living below the poverty level. A more realistic figure is estimated by many as being much higher, perhaps as much as or even more than 70,000,000 million people, or close to 20% of our total population, with a disproportionate percentage being people of color.
My obvious purpose is to directly link these figures to the crime rate in poor communities wherever they are concentrated. It’s an open secret that poverty is the prime cause of crime in crime ridden areas. But you might want to remind the political class of this. The knee jerk reaction of some politicians on both sides of the aisle is to pander to the understandable fear of these sort of crimes and demand more aggressive policing and more police.
The Gentrification Scam
New York City is a good example of how gentrification has dramatically lowered crime rates in recent years in the inner cities but did so by driving out millions of low income and poor people into the outer suburbs and smaller suburban ghettos. The recent uptick in crime there shows that this biased developmental process, one that excludes lower-income and poor Americans, has gone about as far as it can go, with inflation and rising rents making things even worse for those not yet driven out, many of whom must rely on less than legal methods to survive. The response of New York’s Democratic Mayor and former policeman, Eric Adams, has been a typical one, to ignore the effects of gentrification and advocate more police and get “tougher” on crime in response.
Why Poverty is “Incurable” Under Market Capitalism
The police seem to know even better than the politicians that most “street crimes” are poverty related and happen in poor neighborhoods but blame the wrong culprit. It’s important to understand why poverty persists in the wealthiest country in the world and why meaningful change and serious reforms have never even been talked of or attempted. The answer is rather simple and basic: Our profit dependent capitalist system benefits directly from poverty and its maintenance by:
- Keeping Unemployment Up. Higher unemployment keeps wages down and profits up. Today’s 3% unemployment rate is total fiction and represents the % of present unfilled job opening shortages, not how many are really looking for work. After one year of looking for work, they are dropped from government statistics and vanish forever statistically. Those who have never worked are also not counted. Those counted as employed, on the other hand, include individuals who did only limited part time work for pay or profit during the survey reference week.
- Buying Control of Government: Capitalist businesses have a two-party system under which both are strong advocates of the capitalist system and work 24/7 to lobby against more popular control or reform.
- Enabling Corporate Welfare Projects: Once you control government, they will lobby so the legislators make will make tax revenue gets used for infrastructure and related projects which benefits them, so they don’t have to pay for it. A simple example would be a logging business needs a new 10-mile road to connect a privately owned logging interest to the main highway. The company will lobby and use their influence to get public money to build the road. Corporate welfare such as this takes away from government’s resources to spend on the poor, who desperately need it. Class-bias is a major factor in how infrastructure dollars get used.
There are more ways to list, but I think you get the idea. Once capitalist behind the scenes control over government was established, which happened as far back was the 19th Century, there was never much hope of any elected government passing significant reforms aimed at limiting poverty and developing full employment economies that had to pay a living wage minimum.
Minor Reforms May Ease our Conscience but . . .
There has been some changes and reforms in this arrangement over time, but they were not nearly enough to make a real dent in poverty conditions. Nor do they change the basic practices of a market capitalist economy, ones which use their considerable influence to guarantee the perpetuation of humongous accumulations of wealth into the hands of a tiny few. In anything, these wealthy interests have been increasing the gap between the haves and have nots in recent years. While many reforms of various level have been enacted, they are filtered by an unwritten rule that preserving capitalist interest must take priority whenever possible to limit the scope and degree of any reform. Eg: Minimum wages laws, for example, have always been set in most cases at or below poverty levels to preserve businesses, big and small, that depend on paying lower wages.
Both Parties Back Capitalism
I suspect that most of us here are aware that the Republican Party represents the worst elements, tendencies and aspects of the capitalist system. Yes, the one which includes the well-financed elements that are spending unheard of amounts of cash to back a totalitarian system headed by a wannabe dictator and which admires a 21st Century Hitler named Putin, and another wannabe DeSantis to replace him.
As I see it, the main ideological weakness of the Democratic Party is that the leadership endorses the same capitalist system with few reservations and no commentary as to how the capitalist system can or should be reformed so as to be rendered socially and morally responsible.
In practice there are already a number of socialized aspects in our economy, such as aid to farm producers, corporate “welfare” and social security, but the leadership seems to run away from any form of the word “social” or raising the notion that capitalism spawns many anti-social economic problems and practices and can only be made a morally defensible system if it is reformed drastically. They have accepted the word “social” is a “dirty word” in any form and only mention it to argue against any form of socialization in the economy.
Major reforms are mostly out of the question as a result, and major reforms of our economy are the only way a living wage can be made possible. Or, for example, to finance ways to combat the eventual destruction of our environment caused by global warming, the costs of both being enormous. But one cannot even imagine a movement for a living wage without active movement towards it. The current rebirth of the labor movement in recent years has elements in it that have raised the living wage issue.
Capitalist Interests Universally Oppose a Living Wage
Advocating a universal living wage is a reform that will be attacked tooth and nail by capitalist interests, even more liberal ones. It has tremendous potential to catch fire if carefully and consistently articulated. The main reason for opposition is a troubling one, however. And not just for the capitalist classes, but for us as well.
Industrial capitalism has always required conditions which forced people to take many of their jobs, especially difficult, dangerous, and unhealthy ones. It was under the fear of violence, severe punishment, including death, that slaves performed labor in the pre-industrial days. Later industrial work forces were motivated often by desperation and extreme poverty and not by anything close to a decent living wage expectation.
Industrialized countries trying to establish socialism also ran into a similar problem — low wages, authoritarian party bosses and an alienated work force. Remember that industrialization under capitalism took an awful toll on workers, who paid a terrible price for progress mostly that they themselves never shared it. Mechanization has helped in some regards, but workers in an auto plant are still treat more like machines and there is no guaranteed way to insure laid off workers can get a replacement job. Industrialization itself was a method of development created in the capitalist mode. All of us more privileged citizens have those privileges at the expense of others much less privileged. It was the way “progress” was achieved. Plus, we relate capitalistically to the rest of the world in an imperial relationship, also exploiting their labor and material resources, a very relevant issue and subject for another article.
Any guarantee of a living wage will tend to make some jobs unfillable without some form of compulsion or significant compensation. The question is, can an industrial society survive without some type of pressured/forced labor? Will we ever pay a living wage to farm workers and jobs today considered menial, dangerous or unskilled? Will a benefit similar be paid to the unemployed? Some countries in Europe that are still capitalist do pay more than poverty level benefits to those out of work or unable to work. And have much lower crime rates. In any case, we should both understand the causes of poverty as well as the obstacles that lay ahead if we wish to vanquish it.
Policing in Destabilized Communities of Color
For starters, take for example, a white police officer from a stable mostly white community. He or she will bring along with them expectations and class and racial understandings that are radically different from those that operate in a destabilized community of color. No amount of training can cancel that out. It also brings along with them a major problem with policing in America and many other countries. Which is the belief that policing is like any other job. But it’s a job unlike any other. It’s one under which they are given the power to take life and make judgements as to who is committing a crime and whom they must arrest. This puts what we call a “job” on a qualitatively different level of difficulty, stress and danger.
Even more relevant is to expose the myth that police can really control and reduce crime without making mass arrests and the mass imprisonment which follows. Filling our jails with over 2 million people counting those on parole in a revolving door prison system with does nothing to address the real causes of crime, which is poverty. We have more in prison that Russia, China, and India. The cost of the Criminal Justice System rivals our defense budget.
Back in the 50’s
I know the following from personal experience, having grown up in a poor white area in New York City during the 1950s, when gangs were everywhere throughout the city. There were youth gangs, crime, violence, drug addiction, low wages, fights and unemployment, all things you will often find in such a community. Our neighborhood was documented by photojournalist Bruce Davidson. A couple of guys we knew went to the electric chair, one for killing a cop after a botched robbery. Even without racial tensions with the police, they were hated and mistrusted. They were going to go home that night to a stable life, and we were not. They were, to us, an alien force “sent to mess with us.” They looked at us as wild animals. Sound familiar? And conditions in most black communities back then, it should be said, were much worse. It’s also worth mentioning that both the media and many politicians have deliberately and falsely tended to paint an exclusively black face on crime.
Surprisingly, I almost felt sorry for some of the police back then, knowing they had an impossible task trying to control us, and that there were a few that did seem to care. It was only a dramatic uptick in available better paying union jobs in the 60s that broke the back of poverty for many of us. This progress was mostly denied to people of color.
Tough on Crime B.S.
Conditions in many poor communities of color are often qualitatively worse, both then and now. Whatever political rhetoric the politicians will blather about that they are “tough on crime” and that police are sent into these communities to protect people is nonsense. They are entrusted with containing crime and the problems that exist in these communities and keeping it confined to those areas. No, the police are not told that. And most do not believe it anyway. Our jails in the 80’s and 90’ were filled with people of color and still are. They were largely left out of the working-class progress that followed WWII. This was our government’s real response to poverty.
Poverty and the Living Wage Movement
A large segment of our capitalist economy has been historically built, maintained and depends on poverty level wages. Any understanding of how to approach a solution to our enormous poverty problems needs to consider our economy’s minimum wage dependency. It’s also an issue that I would like to see blended together with the development of a broad movement for a national living wage as opposed to a national minimum wage.
Our wealthy capitalist rulers, now with many oligarchic level figures approaching 1 trillion dollars in net worth, have historically opposed progress. I have no illusions as to the difficulties. But doing good things in America has never been easy. Nothing that’s worthwhile ever is.