Interesting Conjunction of Letters

A reader who is by no means a liberal writes in dismay:

I’m sure by now you’ve heard about this Heritage Foundation claim that American poor people aren’t really poor.

Of course a number of problems with this jumped out at me immediately. Owning a “video gaming system” does not necessarily mean owning a newly purchased X-Box, as they suggest. It could mean finding an old Gameboy at a yard sale for $10, or having one leftover from a time when the family’s finances were better.

But I was curious about some of the claims. So I decided to look up the evidence first cited for their claims:

“For most Americans, the word ‘poverty’ suggests destitution: an inability to provide a family with nutritious food, clothing, and reasonable shelter. For example, the Poverty Pulse poll taken by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development asked the general public: ‘How would you describe being poor in the U.S.?’ The overwhelming majority of responses focused on homelessness, hunger or not being able to eat properly, and not being able to meet basic needs.[1] That perception is bolstered by news stories about poverty that routinely feature homelessness and hunger.”

The cited source is:

“[1]See Catholic Campaign for Human Development, ‘Poverty Pulse: Wave IV,’ January 2004, at (June 21, 2011).”

So I went there. And while looking for their cited question (and responses), I found a lot of context they’re not mentioning. Like this:

“Respondents were asked, ‘How much annual income would you say a family of four living in the United States needs to cover their basic needs?’ The mean level cited is over $41,000, the median is $40,000. As a point of comparison, the Federal poverty income threshold for a family of four is $18,400.”

Now wait a minute. The Heritage Foundation was telling me that America’s poor are not really poor according to the understanding of the general American public. But when I look at the document they cited, it tells me that Americans think anything less than $40,000 (more than twice the Federal poverty income threshold) isn’t enough to cover the basic needs of a family of four. In other words, the general public doesn’t agree with the Heritage Foundation– the poor are even poorer than the general public’s concept of poor.

The same CCHD document says:

“A little more than half of all adults are concerned that they will be poor at some point in their lives and people seem to be more concerned about this than in previous years.”

Again, this doesn’t tell me that the general American public doesn’t perceive American poverty as real poverty. Just the opposite. It suggests that most adults fear they could easily cross into real poverty themselves.

Well, I looked and looked, but Heritage Foundation’s evidence wasn’t in the cited CCHD document at all. Still, I thought, they must be referring to something. Surely they wouldn’t make it up out of whole cloth. So I ran a search for the quoted text. I finally found it in this CCHD document.

But guess what? Even if they had cited the correct document, they would still be misrepresenting it. Here, again, is what they said:

“the Poverty Pulse poll taken by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development asked the general public: ‘How would you describe being poor in the U.S.?’ The overwhelming majority of responses focused on homelessness, hunger or not being able to eat properly, and not being able to meet basic needs.”

Here, however, is that the actual CCHD document says about the question they quoted:

“Being poor in the United States is described by low-income people in terms of not having things (a home, job, food, money, health care), but also in emotional terms. Housing continues to be a significant determinant of being poor. Almost one quarter (23%) of low income respondents say that not having a home or adequate housing is what is meant by being poor in the U.S. Lack of jobs and money are also high on the list. But many respondents continue to describe being poor in terms of how they feel. They describe being poor in the U.S. as depressing, degrading, being looked down on, ignored, hopeless, lonely, powerless. For many, being poor has less to do with what they do or do not have than with how they are treated….”

The question “How would you describe being poor in the U.S.?” was not asked of the general public, as HF claims, but of poor people. In other words, the Heritage Foundation told me “this is what the American public means when they say ‘poverty,’ as opposed to what the government calls ‘poverty.’” But the CCHD isn’t saying that at all. They’re saying “this is how poor people themselves describe their personal experience of being poor.”

It is simply amazing to me that anyone is taking this study even remotely seriously.

I had not heard of this study, but then I’ve been underwater with work and have missed a lot. It is, alas, part of the general trend of the Thing that Used to be Conservatism that it now regards “facts” as more or less malleable props for maintaining Unit Cohesion and not as things which should guide our prudential judgements based on reality. And it certain has little interest in facts when they favor the claims of the poor and weak on the consciences of the rich and powerful. So this sort of manipulation, while sad, is not surprising. The wondrous thing about our post-modern culture is that even conservatives have almost completely adopted the Identity Politics methods that so characterized the Left in the 80s. What matters, for huge swaths of the Thing that Used to Be Conservatism is not what is said, but who is saying it. For many people, it is sufficient argument to say, “Well, the CCHD! There you are! Buncha damn libruls!” to prove that, somehow, the Heritage Foundation’s twisting of the CCHD analysis is “more accurate” than the analysis they are twisting. Increasingly, many in the Thing that Used to Be Conservatism navigate reality not by asking, “What is true?” but by asking “Where does my kinship lie? Who are the foreigners to my tribe? Who are the Tribal Elders and what do they allow me to think?” It reminds me ever so much of the Democrats back in the 80s with their stupid identity politics.

And not just me. Here’s a reader of my blog, an intelligent and decent fellow hailing from what I think of as the Sensible Old Left as distinct from the Crazy Left, concerned about the weak and dispossessed as a Catholic should be, not ideological and willing to engage with conservatives and see the merits of their side of things. He writes:

I started reading conservative blogs to resume what had been a strong suit for me in the past-reading conservative literature, and explaining the opposition to left-wing folks. (And again, Obama is no where close to left wing.) The right wing since the late 1980′s had been a fascinating read, with a lively intellectual life while the left decided to just focus on emoting over thinking.

The right wing had discipline in thought and message (it may argue within its clan but it presented a unified front to the opposition) and dominated government since Reagan.

This collapsed somewhere around 2005. Conservativism was also its height- it had control of nearly all arms of the US government and had created tax/fiscal/regulatory policies that would shape the nation in a way the New Deal had shaped the nation for decades. It structured the Defense Department/Intelligence apparatus/Homeland security infrastructure in a way that the 1950′s shaped the next two decades of the Cold War. It had the NYTimes promoting its war in Iraq just as it wanted it too, and one of its reporter went to jail protecting a conservative source. It was the right wing’s world.

Intellectually, the right wing had begun to cease deliberate thinking and instead developed philosophies of justification of the GWBush years, while talk radio began to feed the serotonin-starved limbic systems of the Red States. Since then “anger” and paranoia replace thoughtful considered speech. Gone is the more interesting intellectual development of thought.

Part of this problem stems from the same group that promoted its development. The right wing think tanks need to fund their stables of highly-paid conservative super-stars and the think tank funders are not interested in hearing “thought” that develops into something like Alan Simpson’s more recent interview in which he thinks their needs to be a taxation policy that supports our infrastructure, which currently at 15% of the GDP is inadequate. I point out often that Australia is has revenues around 30% of its GDP and has a healthier economy, but other nation’s successes or failures seem to be ignored by American exceptionalists, left or right. The think tanks want to fund viewpoints, not thought anymore. This may be a flip-flopping of right vs. left, with left wing periodicals doing more thoughtful “work” finally.

In short, the right wing is where the left wing was in the 1980′s- angry, splintered and eating each other. The left wing at that time had splintered into a dozen affinity groups with environmentalists vs. poverty-advocates vs. feminists vs. african-american advocates vs. civil rights groups, etc. There was no party discipline and little thought.

Catholic conservative thought has moved past orthodoxy=Republicanism, but just barely. This however, has created a series of litmus tests for the conservative Catholic, who for years ran with the CINO title for anyone who voted Democrat. The conservative Catholic movement is fractured also, and the Colorado mess in which 3 different bishops (or in the case of Chaput, archbishops) all insisted in three varying ways which vote for whom would put someone in the confessional demonstrated this. (This has done nothing for conservative Catholicism which has been part of the back-bone of pro-life activities in the US.) Conservative Catholicism has become increasingly rigid too, harkening back to an era (usually the 1940′s and 1950′s) and a series of reputed virtues in that era that never existed. Couple that with its disappointment of Benedict 16th, who has turned out to be closer in thought and theology to churchgoing Commonweal readers than to George Weigel, and one finds conservative Catholics unmoored, seeking new sources of “disciplinarians,” since its presumed Vatican Dobermann turned out to be a happy, bouncy sheepdog.

Conservative Catholic thought is now, in general (I am not speaking of anyone specifically or you at all, just in general), reactionary, “touchy,” and rigidly incapable of entertaining arguments or thoughts beyond its own reflexive stances. As such, folks like Andrew Bacevich will find more of a future on the pages of Commonweal, than in NRO or First Things.

This is just what it looks like from the outside looking into conservative writing, thinking, and commentary.

I find it hard to argue with a lot of this. Is anybody else feeling the constriction and ossification and growth of factionalism and party spirit?


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