Ending poverty is often seen as a charitable cause. Doing something for people who need help is considered a “good deed,” but beyond that, many Americans see no inherent value in improving conditions for the poor. This lack of interest works its way into political discourse; during the 2012 campaigns, there was much talk about the middle and upper classes, with little to no discussion about how to help those who are suffering the most. According to Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), a progressive media watchdog group, only “17 of the 10,489 campaign stories studied (0.2 percent) addressed poverty in a substantive way.” But even though some might not think poverty is a serious issue, there is one thing everyone agrees upon: that national security should be the government’s top priority, or at least, close to it. So what if poverty was actually understood as a threat to our collective safety? There is much evidence to indicate that it is; if this is the case, then ending poverty isn’t charity—it’s a national imperative. And if America’s security can depend on the welfare of its poor, then the same must be true for other countries—and our global security initiatives would need to be drastically realigned.
The American concept of individualism is a unique one. While most other countries have historically been established as monocultures, the United States has been known as a “melting pot” for decades. Tied to this view of all human beings as having been created equal is the notion that everyone should be able to live life as he or she sees fit, without other people restricting individuals’ abilities to express themselves. This relatively radical notion of freedom cashes out in more protections for speech and organization, but a smaller appreciation for the value of basic necessities. Many Americans believe that being poor is the fault of the poor people; there is a widespread notion that if one would only work harder, one could bring oneself out of poverty and into prosperity. According to a 2001 NPR poll, only 59% of people who believed there are jobs ready and waiting for welfare recipients also believed that those jobs pay a living wage. This means that more than 2 out of 5 Americans think that people on welfare could get a good job that would bring them out of poverty, if only they wanted it badly enough.
However, this is almost never the case. Poverty is a vicious cycle; the oft-repeated adage that it “takes money to make money” sadly rings true for too many of the world’s poor. The American Dream used to dictate that one could come to the United States, and through honest, hard work, make enough money to support a family while saving for the future and leaving one’s children better off than the previous generation. But when American individualism is taken to its extremes, and the country is left without any social programs, the impoverished have no ladder to climb to a higher level of income—barring a large amount of luck, it can be extremely difficult to make enough money from minimum wage work to save for the next generation’s college education. Even more difficult can be the acquisition of loans for starting a business, or for buying a home. The poor find themselves living paycheck to paycheck, sometimes making less than they need to stay afloat. Losing money like this leads to losing electricity, a home, and eventually the ability to even buy a meal.
These tragedies that occur every day in America are shrugged off by many as “somebody else’s problem;” the connection between the suffering of the impoverished and the welfare of the middle and upper classes is often unseen. However, these social inequalities can affect us all in the field that many see as the deepest, most sacred duty of all governments: national security. To the shortsighted, security may seem to only be about securing our borders and defeating our enemies in battle. But these tactics only address symptoms of insecurity; if we want to truly protect our nation, then we must attack the structural forces which work inexorably to erode our national safety.
President Dwight Eisenhower, the last Commander in Chief to have been a US Army General since the Civil War era, famously attacked institutionalized racism and segregation in this very manner. He understood that the bigotry being enforced all around the country was creating weaknesses for the Soviet Union to exploit through propaganda and moral relativism. When the Cold War was a very real danger to global stability, the widespread racism in America was a point to which Soviet leaders constantly drew attention: the country at the forefront of capitalism was the place where the entrenched powers—the rich, the white, the men—can successfully discriminate against the powerless minorities, whereas the Soviet-led communist countries could point to their rigidly defined social philosophies which sought to eradicate poverty and treat all people as equals. Even though a careful analysis of these claims would have raised serious doubts about Russia’s arguments, that kind of information was not something to which most people had access. When it came to forging new allies, Eisenhower was especially concerned with the ability of Soviet propaganda to poison the well for potential American allies.
Although the Cold War is over, US influence abroad still suffers because of domestic inequalities. One of the major critiques that Islamist radicals use to recruit new members is of the decadence of the American rich, at the expense of large, impoverished masses. When American ambassadors to the United Nations try to criticize countries like China and Russia on their human rights records, they have the ammunition to return fire, highlighting the suffering that goes on every day on the streets of American cities. If the United States wants to be the paragon of virtue in the international community, it must first hold itself to the standards it wants to set for the rest of the world.
Even deeper than the concern for our international reputation is the fright over the state of our economy. One of the best ways to ensure a country’s domestic safety is by ensuring that it has a thriving, diverse economy which can help pay for all the factors that make up a strong national defense. However, if over 10% of a country’s population is considered poor, then this country is going to suffer from a serious lack of tax funds. Fewer taxes means less money for security; if a country wants to ensure that it has plenty of money for the government to spend, it needs to make sure that all its citizens have the ability to make as much money as possible. When someone sees a fellow American on the street, with one set of clothes and barely enough change to pay for a meal, that impoverished person should not be understood as a failure, or as a burden. Instead, what should be seen is the opportunity for that person to become a wealthy taxpayer who helps the rest of us pay for the public goods we all want and need—like a strong army. Even though the American recession is technically over, for most people it still feels like a broken economy. By breaking the cycle of poverty and helping US citizens get back to work, the American economy, and thus America itself, becomes stronger.
All of these arguments are not unique to America—every country in the world suffers for its poor. No government can successfully criticize another on a fundamental level without being subjected to relativistic arguments about deficiencies in opportunity and equality. No economy can maintain continuous investment in unsustainable social programs that do not do enough to bring people out of poverty. No polity can tolerate the basic injustice of fellow citizens suffering, day in and day out, often through no fault of their own. In order to make every nation stronger, relative to each other as well as absolutely, global poverty must be eradicated. When nobody has to go bankrupt because of cancer, and the location of one’s birth has no effect on that person’s abilities to succeed in life, then we can truly say that we have tackled basic global inequities, and we can look at moving on to solving other problems. But for the safety of our individual countries and for our international systems, poverty must be inextricably associated with poor national security and the threat that such a failure poses to every person around the world.
– Jake Simon
Sources: FAIR, NPR
Photo: Mother Nature News