Chavisa Woods

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Essay: Poverty Today..

 Poverty Today,

(The Neo-liberal Gap, Milton Friedman vs.

Marx and the Fable of Welfare Fat Cats)


Whether back home or in New York, I still hear people complaining about welfare mothers (you know, the ones who had so many kids just so they could get a free ride on the government dole), alcoholics who live in government housing projects and can't afford rent but still find money for beer, the "Gangsta" with the Cadillac bought on the welfare check, and all the other types of free-loaders abusing the system. These people, as the Reaganites have described them, are the "Welfare Fat Cats.”  This absurd moniker though, has stuck and stuck hard, stigmatizing those who need welfare, and making it seem as though most people on welfare are getting one over on the rest of us and sailing through life on a slippery song.

The truth is, most people who rely on welfare programs are trying hard to get their lives on a more sustainable financial track. Unfortunately, poverty, although not genetic, is usually hereditary. People who have been raised in dire poverty have been functioning on the level of (financial) survival all of their lives and have no map to navigate toward and  no basis for sustainability. It is  difficult to  imagine what walking a path to even basic financial stability would look like when one is burdened with the weight of constantly losing and regaining a hold on the simplest commodities; heat, housing, water, food. When you are hungry and your child has a cold and your heat is going to be turned off in two days, when the maintaining basic commodities is a constant juggling act with a different ball dropping every month, it’s insane to think one would be able to set a plan for the future. The nature of survival is that it is immediate, immanent. This is what people mean when they speak of those living day-to-day.

I know proponents of the “American Dream” would have us believe that anyone who wants to can  pull themselves up by their bootstraps, work hard and  get rich. But the effects and workings of poverty and the poverty lifestyle are complex, often unseen and misunderstood by the larger society. Poverty is a very difficult thing to break out of and for every one compelling story of success and substantial class climbing there are thousands left in the wake who were not so lucky. The amount of people in this country living at a level of disenfranchisement and dire poverty  is unacceptable. Poverty is systemic and in a nation as wealthy as this, unconscionable.  

I want to say I do not understand why the government would rather trim the already dime-sized safety net from the poorest of the poor by cutting programs like WIC and welfare, rather than say, letting corporate tax cuts for the wealthiest expire, but unfortunately, I do understand.

 According to a recent article in the New Yorker by Hendrik Hertzberg, in 1980 ‘ the best-off tenth of American families collected nearly one third of the nation’s income. Now, they are getting close to half.’

 These numbers keep rising. 

 The amount of wealth owned by the top  ten percent of the wealthiest people in the country has nearly quadrupled, that’s right quadrupled in the last thirty years. I can not repeat this fact or these numbers often enough. Money is not a natural resource. There is (ostensibly) a limited amount of it being passed around. So guess what? It’s pretty basic. If you have more of it, yes, someone else has less. There is enough wealth (monetary and otherwise) in this country that it is possible for no one to be living at such a dire level of poverty that the basic tenants of survival are held in daily question, while at the same time (if you need) allowing the wealthy to still remain very wealthy, but maybe not “Private-Island-Super-Rich.”  

Am I talking about redistribution of wealth? Sure. Am I sounding like a Marxist? Sure. I am. What does that mean? Well, it means a lot of things to a lot of different people, but for me it means I have read Capital and I understand and agree with most of the ideas theories and definitions posed in Marx’s writings. (It also means a few... okay more than a few... other things that I won’t go into here because that’s another essay.)

One of the most fundamental and recurring ideas brought up in Capital is that labor is undervalued. Marx poses the idea that it is not innately logical that the ownership of the means of production; (ie: owners of factories, businesses, corporations and machines) is of higher value than the production itself (those who work the means of production). In other words, workers deserve as much pay as owners for the products they produce. If you can’t get with that, and looking at the state of the world today, I would guess that many of you can’t, then at least we could perhaps for now find some middle ground. I know equal pay is a lot for people to stomach. (cause it’s a little too red, but red is my favorite color. Anyway…) At least we  must acknowledge that right now, the division between the income value of laborers versus the income of property owners is way of kilter. 1 Walmart CEO Michael Duke's $35 million salary, when converted to an hourly wage, worked out to $16,826.92.  By comparison, at a Walmart store planned for the Windy City's Pullman neighborhood, new employees to be paid $8.75 an hour would gross $13,650 a year. (For instance.) Yes, he makes more in one hour than the workers make in a year.

How is this acceptable? Well let’s first ask, how did we get here?

What is neoliberalism? 2Neoliberalism describes a market-driven approach to economic and social policy based on neoclassical theories of economics that stresses the efficiency of private enterprise, liberalized trade and relatively open markets, and therefore seeks to maximize the role of the private sector in determining the political and economic priorities of the state. Neoliberals seeks to transfer control of the economy from public to the private sector, under the belief that it will produce a more efficient government and improve the economic health of the nation.”

One of the most, if not the most influential neocon/ neoliberal economic theorists, and one of the people who has most shaped the face of national as well as global economic policy over the last, and at least for the next fifty years is Milton Friedman.

Who is Milton Friedman? 3 “Milton Friedman (July 31, 1912 – November 16, 2006) was an American economist, statistician, a professor at the University of Chicago. Friedman spent 1941–43 working on wartime tax policy for the Federal Government, as an advisor to senior officials of the United States Department of the Treasury. He was an economic advisor to U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Over time, many governments practiced his restatement of a political philosophy that extolled the virtues of a free market economic system with little intervention by government. As a leader of the Chicago school of economics, based at the University of Chicago, he had great influence in determining the research agenda of the entire profession.”  

Friedman's students and followers, known as the "Chicago Boys," have served on cabinets for, and advised all of the United State’s presidents since Reagan, yes, even Obama.

Friedman is the author of the Book, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

An avid supporter of an unregulated Free Market, in interviews and essays has openly expressed such ideas as: “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its ProfitsThere is no place for government to prohibit consumers from buying products the effect of which will be to harm themselves. So the question is, do corporate executives, provided they stay within the law, have responsibilities in their business activities other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible? And my answer to that is, no they do not.”             … and…”

"In an ideal free market resting on private property, no individual can coerce any other, all cooperation is voluntary, all parties to such cooperation benefit or they need not participate. There are no values, no "social" responsibilities in any sense other than the shared values and responsibilities of individuals. Society is a collection of individuals and of the various groups they voluntarily form. The political principle that underlies the market mechanism is unanimity. The political principle that underlies the political mechanism is conformity. The individual must serve a more general social interest — whether that be determined by a church or a dictator or a majority. The individual may have a vote and say in what is to be done, but if he is overruled, he must conform. It is appropriate for some to require others to contribute to a general social purpose whether they wish to or not.” … and…

“I am in favor of cutting taxes under any circumstances and for any excuse, for any reason, whenever it's possible.”

To get a better idea of “Friedman Economics,” and the impact, testing and implementation of neoliberal/neocon policies worldwide, I highly recommend The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein. Of course, if you really want to know and understand the nature of his theories, the best thing to do is read his (Friedman's) books and essays.

Why am I going on about this and what is my point? Good question. I suppose I am writing this  because I want to spread the information. I am not necessarily outlining some economic conspiracy theory, per say, but I do function under the knowledge that the U.S. government is composed of people who adhere to and are educated in a very specific philosophy of economics that relies on a subjugated working class to produce its goods and fight its wars. Furthermore, this philosophy implies that the cream not only will rise, but that most of the cream already has risen to the top.

This philosophy places profit as the be-all-and-end-all of Corporate social obligation, while at the same time retaining those profits almost entirely for the property owners, and places the unregulated corporation, which has no real social obligation, as the ultimate tool of shaping society and distributing wealth and goods in place of a democratic government or any other possible regulatory/ governmental tool. (I have said before and will say again that I do not believe the sort of representative democracy we currently function under is the best possible system of governance, but even that is being/ has been usurped by Corporate Capitalism.)

So now, Instead of skimming a thumbnail's portion of the overwhelming excess at the top, this government has continued on its draconian path of further subjugating and impoverishing the poorest of its people. It is keeping profits in the hands of the property owners and Corporate Billionaires because it truly believes in the ultimate justice of the free market, and obviously places little to no value in the labor of the working class, which is expendable, as it has become an ever-expanding population of more and more disparate and desperate workers who are increasingly afraid to demand their rights, for fear of losing whatever  scrawny crumb that is being doled out to them by the soft, squishy fingers of the super-rich.

This particular note/ rant, is difficult to wrap up. But I do think it is important to know what histories, philosophies and theories are shaping the world around us. It is possible to educate one’s self and to be aware. And I can’t help but believe if more people were more knowledgeable on these subjects, we would have more power to effect real change.

Some of our problems are similar, some very different, some created by the U.S. and exported, but now we Americans need to look to the Middle East for guidance. I do hope that we start heading out to the streets again this summer, demanding an end to the wars and U.S. global occupation. I am heartened by the recent events in Wisconsin, and hope that this will spread across the country culminating into real and meaningful actions advocating for the rights of workers, laborers and those living in poverty.  


On a side note, I recently learned from someone in the know, that congress people, senators and government officials get an average of about 40 emails a day (these states did not include NY. It may be a bit higher here.)  from concerned citizens. This includes form letters. I think this is not enough. I get about 40 emails a day myself, and I am just a lowly art-fag. So if you are not calling or writing government officials because you think it won’t get through, or won’t be read or won’t mater, it’s not true. They get through. They get read. And apparently, just 40 emails a day makes these people feel overwhelmed. Let’s show them what it’s like to really feel overwhelmed. I was raised to write officials. It’s something I have always done. I write, I call, about three times a month. I too, always thought that I must be one of hundreds of people whose opinions were coming in every day. But apparently not. So in lue of, and hopefully soon in addition to more radical actions, it’s the least we can do.  Really, it’s the least. The least. Let them know you see them. Let them know you know what they are doing. They are not invisible and we are not complicit.


-by Chavisa Woods      

 (January 2011)







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