In her article “Changing Our Minds” (September-October 2008), Frances Moore Lappé suggests that the real barriers to an egalitarian society are the assumptions we have about poverty and its causes. Lappé is correct to say that our perceptions of poverty are all wrong. Conspicuously absent from her article is the term “welfare.” The U.S. welfare state has generally expanded and contracted as a countercyclical response to the economy. As Lappé points out, social policy succeeded in dramatically reducing poverty from the 1950s to the ’70s.
But our welfare state has always made a distinction between the “worthy” (working) poor and the “unworthy” (able-bodied and non-working) poor. A critical myth she did not mention concerns the image of the “unworthy” poor. In order to bust this myth, the non-poor in this country need to come to terms with the barriers that have given them unequal access to the opportunity structure. Fighting poverty must begin with our mistaken ideas about us as the “worthy.”
Ben Roth, Chicago, Illinois