January 22, 2014

The Price of Dignity

When it comes to eliminating poverty, private charity cannot replace public policy.Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Fifty years ago this month, in his first State of the Union address, President Lyndon Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty in America.” Johnson urged Congress and the American people to join him in the struggle against poverty; it was a struggle, he said, we could “not afford to lose.” Johnson understood that to improve the condition of the destitute, we had to attack the root causes of poverty, and not merely its symptoms.

In the years that followed, Johnson’s administration launched a volley of programs, many of which are still with us today, to offer the poor better education, better healthcare, better jobs, and better homes. They included Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start, better funding for K-12 education, loans to low-income college students, housing assistance for low-income families, and legal aid for the poor. Under Johnson, the food stamp pilot project became a permanent program that would eventually eliminate severe malnutrition, which, in the early 60s, made parts of the US seem as if they were in a Third World country.

Nevertheless, in politics as in physics, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and it did not take long before the Right was denouncing the war on poverty as a failure. President Reagan led the way with his famous dictum, “We fought a war on poverty and poverty won.” This idea has been reiterated umpteen times down the decades, embellished with accounts of Cadillac-driving welfare queens, unemployed gourmets, and surfers collecting food stamps. If people remain poor, we’re told, that’s because assistance programs make life too cushy for them. The best way to help them escape the trap of poverty is thus to shrink or abolish the programs designed for their benefit. The result, since the 1980s, has been a cutback in public spending, and today the axe hangs over several critical programs, including food stamps.

But while it’s easy enough to propagate myths as gospel truth, the facts speak clearly enough for themselves. While there have no doubt been abuses of government programs, the evidence shows that these programs work. Between 1967 and 2012, they helped lower the overall poverty rate from 26% to 16%, and child poverty from 29% to 19%. According to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure, today’s safety net lifts 41 million people, including 9 million children, above the poverty line. In 2011 alone, food stamps kept 4.7 million Americans, including 2.1 million children, out of poverty.

However, despite undeniable progress, poverty in the US is still rampant. In 2012, almost 50 million people were counted as poor, with 16 million “extremely poor” living below half the poverty line. These figures remind us that we still have far to go to make this country a haven of social and economic justice. The deficit hawks lament that we can’t afford to spend on programs that assist the poor, but the truth is that our ability to fight poverty is not stymied by a shortage of funds but by policies and laws that benefit the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. Over the past half-century, the share of the nation’s wealth going to the top 1% of households has more than doubled. Between 2009 and 2010, 93% of all new income generated went to the top 1%; only 7%, crumbs off the table, went to the remaining 99%. While the incomes of the rich have soared, fast food and service sector workers are paid minimum wages, with no extra benefits. Often they’re forced to work two jobs just to support their families, and an illness in the household can be a financial catastrophe.

We have the resources to overcome poverty. The big question, as always, is whether we have the will to do so. Looking at the persistence of poverty from a Buddhist perspective, we can detect beneath the policy debates a contest between two contrary conceptions of human nature, each entailing a distinct moral vision. One sees people as essentially separate, responsible only for their personal interests and their narrow circle of family and friends. From this perspective, we are all locked into unavoidable competition against one another for the good things of life, and the best way to ensure our success is to enhance our power and influence to shape public policy to our advantage. This point of view sees the poor as failures, as castoffs who must patiently endure their pitiable fate. We’re entitled to help them, of course, but our help should be considered an act of private charity, not a plank of policy—and, therefore, not our collective responsibility.

The other viewpoint—one commensurate with a Buddhist vision—sees people as responsible for one another; indeed, from the highest standpoint, it sees that people are one another, interdependent and mutually sustaining, each in all and all in each. From this perspective, we see others not as obstacles to our own success, nor as mere means to our own advancement, but as ends in themselves, and as meriting a fair chance to develop their own capacities to the fullest. While there are inevitable limits to our personal ability to help everyone in need, we are each obliged to make some contribution to the well-being of the nation to which we belong and the communities in which we participate. This obligation is not merely personal. It extends to our collective voice, the state, which, as the organ of national policy, must endeavor to see that no one lacks the basic amenities of a decent life.

In this vision, poverty reflects negatively not only on those it affects but on our social order, our nation, and even ourselves—on each of us individually and collectively. If some in our midst are poor, faced with a daily struggle to pay for food, rent, and medical bills, that is in part because I, too, am poor—insufficiently endowed with the love, compassion, and sense of justice that might motivate me to redress their poverty. But we can act together, and we do so by enacting programs and policies that will improve the lot of those who can’t help themselves. We do so from a deep conviction that every human person possesses intrinsic dignity and must be given an opportunity to realize that dignity. And we do so, too, from the faith that when people are shown respect, they will reciprocate by acting responsibly from a place of inner dignity.

Poverty still persists today because we have lost the moral perspective as the polestar of public policy. Instead we follow the law of the jungle, content to abandon the poor to their own devices, demanding that they marshal resources they simply do not possess. And the reason we have moved in this direction, drifting away from the high ideals of the Great Society era, is because the vision and values of corporate capitalism have gained ascendency over those of human solidarity and mutual responsibility. To eliminate poverty, this trend must be reversed. The individualistic vision must give way to one that stresses our essential unity; competition must be balanced by mutual assistance and respect.

More than the elimination of poverty depends on this. In the long run, it may indeed be the necessary condition for saving civilization itself.

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi is a Theravada Buddhist monk originally from New York City. He is the former editor of the Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy, Sri Lanka, and has many important publications to his credit, the most recent being his full translation of the Anguttara Nikaya (Wisdom Publications, 2012). In 2008, he founded Buddhist Global Relief, a nonprofit sponsoring hunger relief and education in countries suffering from chronic poverty and malnutrition.

Image courtesy of Flickr.

Further Reading: Preserving the Fecundity of the Earth | A Moral Politics: Nourishing change in US food policy | Into the Fire: Food in the Age of Climate Change | The Attack at Home: A new bill threatens the food security of millions

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jackelope65's picture

Thank you. Most of the people with whom I worked appreciated the help and would stove hard to be productive. You must know that severe trauma affects a much high percentage of young people and the cost to society for them never returning to work is far greater than their medical bill. Our main goal, besides healing, was return to a productive life. I, also, have become poor again with 17 more major surgeries, two cancers, difficult to control hypertension, two recent brain surgeries for an infected brain plate, as well as severe spinal stenosis with pain and nerve damage to my legs. I had 6 of my surgeries in the last year and at 65 could not work any longer. My wife of 47 years are not unhappy;we live and eat very simply feeling little need to buy products. Our meditation practice is intensive, as is our study of Dharma, and love for our Sangha. Although I am retired, I still find great happiness giving advice and supporting my community, with many poor but hard working people. I do not charge anymore, and without expectation my community is very generous with my wife and I. I am certainly very happy and can understand why Generosity is the first of the Paramitas due to its creation of joy and stimulation to perfect the remaining 5 Paramitas in the Kagyu tradition. I am thankful to Tricycle for providing this forum and a diversity of wisdom teachings. And yes poverty, again as you say, is a blessing reminding one of what we have with PRECIOUS HUMAN BIRTH, and how best to be thankful for whatever we have.

wilnerj's picture

It is quixotic to proclaim that poverty can be abolished. However it can be ameliorated. The venerable Bikkhu Bodhi overlooks the underlying cause of deepening poverty and that is inflation predominantly induced by easy money policy. The most effective way to address this growing inequality between the prosperous few, the struggling middle classes, and the poor is not through a patch quilt of legislation and administrative rules but by a redefinition of the role of our Federal Reserve. Is it there to fund financial bubbles or to keep the rate of growth of the money stock in line with real GDP? Until we decisively answer this question by leaning on the Feds to return to an inflation hawkish policy, the growing immiseration of the population will progress along with the demand for more laws. Replacing communal, societal, familial obligations to serve one another for that of the state comes not from a compassionate centered perspective.

Tharpa Pema's picture

Just about every week I hear someone in my social circle decry people who “don’t work.” Rarely do I hear us wonder aloud about the complicated reasons why people “don’t work”—unless we are talking about our own inaction.

Then people who aren’t “working” start blaming those who have jobs and income for being greedy and unfair. I don’t hear many folks considering compassionately why people blame poor people for their suffering.

Ah, we human beings, working or nonworking, we are so alike. One common denominator is our ready impulse to blame and punish.

I think lack of compassion for ourselves is a crucial but largely unacknowledged factor when our society gets stuck in blaming. I don’t hear a lot about how painful, devastating, and threatening it feels for each of us to make conscious the unconscious knowledge that parts of us really are selfish and greedy.

How are people supposed to come to terms with the fact that we all do this? We could use some human models for this behavior of self-acceptance. It is hard work, and gets harder the meaner everybody is to everybody else!

I would like to honor the dignity of all individuals, whether they are working or not, blaming or not blaming. I think poverty will not cease until we stop blaming poor people. I think blaming will not cease until we stop reflexively villifying people who blame the poor.

There is a place in my psyche where I can feel compassion for all suffering beings, whether they suffer from “not working” or from “blaming those not working.” I train myself each day to find that place and remain there. The poor and those who blame the poor are uncomfortably similar—they share fear and desire to shift blame to others!

This is why for me “skillful means” involves steering clear of blaming individuals, political figures, political bodies, etc. The common element is “blame.” In our codependently originating world, blame cannot be pinpointed so specifically without doing injustice to somebody. We need a new paradigm.

How about: Hatred ceases not with hatred, but by love alone is healed.

Buddhists can practice and model accepting our hidden faults for others who have not yet learned how. Sometimes the greatest obstacle to acceptance of our own harmful habits is the unconscious fear that other people will punish us in some unbearable way. I think this fear comes from childhood. There are lots of children walking aroung in adult and aged bodies. Those who practice blame often convey an unconscious desire to punish other people whose behavior they do not understand and can’t change. Then they unconsciously punish themselves when they do the same things they hate other people for doing.

I dedicate the merit to all the misunderstood people of the world. May we all learn to remember the goodness within all of us.

Psiguy's picture

You must look at poverty from a higher level in order to see how wonderful it is. To remove such wonder from a person is to take away their opportunity to grow through it.

The period of greatest discomfort is also the greatest period of opportunity for individual growth. To take that away shackles spiritual growth.

The greatest disservice public policy has done is to take away individual altruism and individual freedom by creating law.

It's the difference between communism and communal-ism. While you must work for the benefit of the greater whole in both systems, the one shackles with fear of consequences of noncompliance with the law, the other functions with the freedom of altruism through Love. One must pass through the second to experience nirvana as the restrictions placed upon the individual in the first limits the free will one must have to surrender within.

Poverty is not good nor bad, it is an opportunity for both the experiencer and the benevolent giver.

wilnerj's picture

Ironically the poor can serve as the salvation for the more fortunate by providing the latter with the opportunity to give. This, however, is no justification for poverty. And when it deepens and the population of poor people grows it becomes the canary in the mine fore it eventually leads to social unrest in the form of crime, political extremism and forms of class warfare. Thus government plays a central role in addressing this concern. But it should not be through more regulation willy nilly applied as stopgap measures but judiciously applied laws to contain heated speculation and other market abuses, containment of market failure, and a broad policy to stem inflation. However it should neither replace nor transplant mutual aid. Keep in mind that the government largess can also empower private giving. Then the issue is how is government spending financed through our taxes or through rising debt?

Psiguy's picture

If I have no food, clothing, or shelter, but have an enlightened awareness of the greater reality, I am rich beyond my wildest expectations.

Often, chasing what we feel is wealth keeps us from obtaining the most valuable possession, "Transcendence of self."

wilnerj's picture

But if you have children to support -- a whole family to maintain and not just yourself then the pictures changes. It no longer is about self-transcendence but compassion in terms of familial responsibility. Then one's is locked in the struggle to pursue these possessions not for one's own self but for the children one raises. All of this is intricately a part of the dharma.

Psiguy's picture

In this case, one has the opportunity to teach our children what we have learned in order to accelerate their growth. Insight and wisdom is a greater gift to our children than a pile of gold.

I hear you though. I straddled the fence for so many years while raising four children that the barbed wire scars on the inside of my legs are permanent. It is not easy to accomplish.

All we can do is our best. And that is OK.

wilnerj's picture

And here we come to agreement.

What we teach our children is our legacy to them.

Thank you for your response.

Namo Buddhaya

Tharpa Pema's picture

Can you say more about what you mean when you speak of “fear of consequences of noncompliance with the law”? I would like to understand better. For me, the fact that our noncommunist government provides some short-term support for folks living in poverty does not cause me to fear noncompliance (I am grateful to comply) nor does it deter me from giving individually out of love. There are so many ways to share.

Psiguy's picture

Forced wealth redistribution that creates a victim entitlement mentality does not bring oneness, it creates division and adversity. It often does not help the giver or the recipient.

Years ago I was a consultant to a religious chain of hospitals that utilized nuns as caregivers. There was no adversarial relationship between providers going on strike for higher wages nor from patients screaming for better care. The human experience of compassion and gratitude flourished.

When our occupation is healing or even harming such as the folks operating the gas chambers during WW II, if our loyalty is to the government, our focus is misplaced.

Tharpa Pema's picture

Thank you for featuring Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi's work frequently. I appreciate it each time.

yourneighbor57's picture

Thank you for this article. It's a good reminder that compassion requires us to speak out about injustice in our society.

william allred's picture

"Our society", as you refer to it, exists on the policies, broken treaties and wars by which it unjustly deprived tens of millions of indigenous peoples and beings of life and land and simple means of providing for their own needs...Karma is. In fact, this social structure which you claim as "yours" is a barbaric and heartless collection of crimes against all of humanity... God's mill turns slowly, but it grinds exceedingly small. I reject it's sovereignty, legitimacy and lawful application of rule over my life and actions.

Dominic Gomez's picture

A comic at the time quipped "I did my part in the war on poverty. I threw a grenade at a beggar." Cute then, too close to reality today.