Decent Poverty Report: Bust and Boom

This reporter's parents were born in the early 1930s. Their worldview was formed by their Depression-era childhood, by World War II, and by the postwar era in which they grew to adulthood. They had the good fortune, and the talent, to follow in their own lives the trajectory of the American economy's greatest bust-to-boom. But their values remained Depression values, so they were always more grounded than giddy as they ascended toward material success. An aphorism my father taught me expresses what I mean concisely: "Once you're poor, you're never rich."

This reporter was born in 1967. It's boom-to-bust, not bust-to-boom, that I've lived through. Instead of Depression values, I absorbed in my childhood years an ethos that went along with prosperity; but my circumstances have grown less prosperous as my life has gone on. I don't think my father's aphorism works in reverse. Having experienced material comfort, it is quite possible to become poor and to be poor, in the deeper senses of that muddiest of verbs. A rather un-comfortable position.

This is the main reason I'm so interested in Paul Goodman's notion of decent poverty: I'm seeking some philosophical and moral clarification, since materially speaking, prospects are looking a little grim. As I read Paul Goodman's sixties writing, I keep noticing the essential difference between then and now in terms of the overall economy. In Growing Up Absurd (1960) and People or Personnel (1962), Goodman is strongly influenced by John Kenneth Galbraith's work on The Affluent Society (1958). Goodman takes it as a given that full employment and optimal productivity are not only attainable but practically at hand; and his analysis starts from that framework, moving on to the particular problems given to a society larded with too many good rat-race jobs. The political argument for decent poverty—that is, for a welfare state that ensures its possibility—is pretty easy to advance within that framework. That is, a society in which real incomes are rising should be able to sustain a class of people in modest but secure means.

But obviously, the political system never agreed to create anything resembling "a sector of pure communism, free appropriation adequate for decent poverty for those who do not want to make money or are too busy with nonpaying pursuits to make money..." (see full quote in this prior post). And how large is the constituency supporting this way of thinking today? Maintaining a safety net becomes a much more strenuous enterprise when real incomes are falling or have been stagnant for a generation. And the kind of austerity plan the Obama administration clearly favors, as in the dire Bowles/Simpson program, made much more likely by the imminent tax cut deal, will accelerate the long-term depletion of public sector funding, particularly for safety-net purposes.

So if Goodman thought that actually living in decent poverty was nearly impossible in the USA in the early 1960s, does that mean it's all the more impossible today? It certainly doesn't diminish the appeal of the idea, at least to my mind.