The Dignity Deficit: Reclaiming Americans' Sense of Purpose

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Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt on Arthur Brooks’ piece on the “Dignity Deficit” as published in Foreign Affairs magazine. The full text is available for subscribers:

“He who establishes conventional wisdom owns history,” a historian once told me.

So it’s no surprise that ever since last year’s extraordinary U.S. presidential election, all sides have been bitterly fighting over what happened—and why. The explanations for Donald Trump’s surprise victory have varied widely. But one factor that clearly played an important role was the alienation and disaffection of less educated white voters in rural and exurban areas. Trump may have proved to be a uniquely popular tribune for this constituency. But the anger he tapped into has been building for half a century.

The roots of that anger lie all the way back in the 1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson launched his so-called War on Poverty. Only by properly understanding the mistakes made in that war—mistakes that have deprived generations of Americans of their fundamental sense of dignity—can the country’s current leaders and political parties hope to start fixing them. And only once they properly understand the problem will they be able to craft the kind of cultural and political agenda that can heal the country’s wounds.

All the way with LBJ

On April 24, 1964, Johnson paid a highly publicized visit to Inez, the biggest town in eastern Kentucky’s Martin County. Inez was the heart of coal country, the most typical Appalachian town that Johnson’s advisers could find. In the 1960s, “typical Appalachian” meant a place suffering from crippling despair. The citizens of Inez were poor. Many of them were unemployed, and their children were malnourished. Johnson had chosen Inez to illustrate that dire poverty was not just a Third World phenomenon: it existed right here at home, and not just in cities but in rural America as well. But he also came to Inez to announce that this tragedy could be remedied.

In one famous photo op, Johnson stopped by the home of a man named Tom Fletcher, an unemployed 38-year-old father of eight. The president climbed up onto Fletcher’s porch, squatted down next to him, and listened to the man’s story. According to a 2013 article in the Lexington Herald-Leader by John Cheves, “Fletcher never finished elementary school and could not really read. The places where he had labored—coal mines, sawmills—were closed. He struggled to support his wife and eight children.” The president used Fletcher’s struggles as a springboard for his own announcement. “I have called for a national war on poverty,” he declared. “Our objective: total victory.” Years later, Cheves reports, Johnson still remembered the encounter. “My determination,” he wrote in his memoirs, “was reinforced that day to use the powers of the presidency to the fullest extent that I could, to persuade America to help all its Tom Fletchers.” Over the next five decades, the federal government would spend more than $20 trillion trying to achieve Johnson’s dream with social welfare programs such as Medicaid, food stamps, and Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

Tom Fletcher personally received some of this largess: he got welfare benefits and found employment through government make-work initiatives, laboring on crews that cleared brush and picked up trash from roadsides. But he never held down a steady job, Cheves recounts, and although his standard of living rose along with the national average, he never made it out of poverty. By 1969, he no longer worked at all and relied instead on disability checks and other public assistance. After his first wife died, he married a woman four decades his junior, with whom he had two more children. In a cruel final twist, Fletcher’s second wife murdered one of those children (and tried to kill the other) as part of a scam to collect on their burial insurance. In 2004, with his wife still in prison, Fletcher died, never having gotten much closer to the American dream than he was when Johnson climbed onto his porch.

Visit the area today, and despite Johnson’s promises, you’ll see that idleness and depression still hang heavy in the air. In Inez, as across the country, the welfare state and modern technology have made joblessness and poverty less materially painful. Homes have electricity and running water. Refrigerators, personal computers, and cars are ubiquitous. Economic growth and innovation have delivered material abundance, and some of the War on Poverty’s programs have proved effective at bolstering struggling families.

But even though poverty has become less materially miserable, it is no less common. In Martin County, just 27 percent of adults are in the labor force. Welfare is more common than work. Caloric deficits have been replaced by rampant obesity. Meanwhile, things aren’t much better on the national level. In 1966, when the War on Poverty programs were finally up and running, the national poverty rate stood at 14.7 percent. By 2014, it stood at 14.8 percent. In other words, the United States had spent trillions of dollars but seen no reduction in the poverty rate.

Of course, the poverty rate doesn’t take into account rising consumption standards or a variety of government transfers, from food stamps to public housing to cash assistance. But the calculations that determine it do include most of the income that Americans earn for themselves. So although the rate is a poor tool for gauging material conditions, it does capture trends in Americans’ ability to earn success. And what it shows is that progress on that front has been scant.

The War on Poverty has offered plenty of economic analgesics but few cures. This is a failure not just in the eyes of conservative critics but also according to the standard set by the man who launched the campaign. On signing the Appalachian Regional Development Act in March 1965, Johnson argued that the United States should aspire to more than simply sustaining people in poverty. “This nation,” he declared, “is committed not only to human freedom but also to human dignity and decency.” R. Sargent Shriver, a key Johnson adviser on the War on Poverty, put it even more explicitly: “We’re investing in human dignity, not doles.”

I need you to need me

At its core, to be treated with dignity means being considered worthy of respect. Certain situations bring out a clear, conscious sense of our own dignity: when we receive praise or promotions at work, when we see our children succeed, when we see a volunteer effort pay off and change our neighborhood for the better. We feel a sense of dignity when our own lives produce value for ourselves and others. Put simply, to feel dignified, one must be needed by others.

The War on Poverty did not fail because it did not raise the daily caloric consumption of Tom Fletcher (it did). It failed because it did nothing significant to make him and Americans like him needed and thus help them gain a sense of dignity. It also got the U.S. government into the business of treating people left behind by economic change as liabilities to manage rather than as human assets to develop.

The dignity deficit that has resulted is particularly acute among working-class men, most of whom are white and live in rural and exurban parts of the United States. In his recent book Men Without Work, the political economist (and American Enterprise Institute scholar) Nicholas Eberstadt shows that the percentage of working-age men outside the labor force—that is, neither working nor seeking work—has more than tripled since 1965, rising from 3.3 percent to 11.6 percent. And men without a high school degree are more than twice as likely to be part of this “un-working” class.

These men are withdrawing not only from the labor force but from other social institutions as well. Two-thirds of them are unmarried. And Eberstadt found that despite their lack of work obligations, these men are no more likely to spend time volunteering, participating in religious activities, or caring for family members than men with full-time employment.

That sort of isolation and idleness correlates with severe pathologies in rural areas where drug abuse and suicide have become far more common in recent years. In 2015, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published an extraordinary paper by the economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton. They found that, in contrast to the favorable long-term trends in life expectancy across the rest of the developed world, the mortality rate among middle-aged white Americans without any college education has actually risen since 1999. The main reasons? Since that year, among that population, fatalities due to chronic liver disease and cirrhosis have increased by 46 percent, fatalities from suicide have risen by 78 percent, and fatalities due to drug and alcohol poisoning are up by a shocking 323 percent.

Unsurprisingly, those left behind hold a distinctly gloomy view of the future. According to a survey conducted last year by the Kaiser Family Foundation and CNN, fewer than one-quarter of white Americans without a college degree expect their children to enjoy a better standard of living in the future than they themselves have today, and half of them believe things will be even worse. (In contrast, according to the same survey, other historically marginalized communities have retained a more old-school American sense of optimism: 36 percent of working-class blacks and 48 percent of working-class Hispanics anticipate a better life for their children.)

To be sure, rural and exurban whites who possess few in-demand skills and little education are hardly the only vulnerable group in the United States today. But the evidence is undeniable that this community is suffering an acute dignity crisis. Left behind every bit as much as the urban poor, millions of working-class whites have languished while elites have largely ignored them or treated them with contempt.

Americans from all walks of life voted for Trump. But exit polls unambiguously showed that a crucial central pillar of his support came from modern-day Tom Fletchers: Trump beat Hillary Clinton among white men without a college degree by nearly 50 percentage points. Tellingly, among counties where Trump outperformed the 2012 GOP candidate Mitt Romney, the margins were greatest in those places with the highest rates of drug use, alcohol abuse, and suicide.

Many analysts and policy experts saw Trump’s campaign as a series of sideshows and unserious proposals that, even if implemented, would not actually improve things for his working-class supporters. For example, academic research clearly shows that trade protectionism—a major theme of Trump’s campaign—is more likely to destroy jobs than create them. Yet Trump won regardless, because he was the first major-party nominee in decades who even appeared to care about the dignity of these working-class voters whose lives are falling apart.

Welfare to work

If its goal is to instill dignity, the U.S. government does not need to find more innovative ways to “help” people; rather, it must find better ways to make them more necessary. The question for leaders, no matter where they sit on the political spectrum, must be, Does this policy make people more or less needed—in their families, their communities, and the broader economy?

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