American Men Can’t Win the “War on Poverty”

Vitruvian $Reading commentary by Angela Glover Blackwell (CEO and Founder of PolicyLink) in the New York Times on the 50th anniversary of the start of the War on Poverty, I am more than ever convinced that we cannot win with our current mode of attack.  In the piece, she points out that it is “not a war” but an “Equitable Economy” that is necessary.  What she says is absoluely true.  We currently live by systems that grossly favor the already rich and ignore those who are poor or not connected to big corporate systems.  These systems are too numerous and out of the scope of my personal study and position as a theologically based writer to offer meaningful insight on, but I can appreciate her expert analysis and thoughtful direction toward tangible solutions.  Indeed, it is not a “war” that is necessary.  But the strategy she presents, although highly effective, could benefit by also addressing the deep cultural issue at hand.  Within an Equitable Economy and certainly more important than a “war”, there is something much more basic that needs to shift.

Lyndon Johnson coined the phrase “War on Poverty” as a battle cry:

“This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort.  It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.”

These words, delivered during his state of the union address in 1964 on the heels of the Kennedy Assassination, were deliberate propaganda on the part of a skillful politician and orator.  This language tapped into not only a very real revenge mentality that was felt by a deeply wounded America in the wake of tragedy, but also the obsession with our place as the “richest nation on earth.”  The country had been at serious odds with itself in terms of race and opportunity and now Johnson, a white southerner seen as a turncoat by the segregationist “Dixiecrats,” was ironically in a position as leader of the United States to champion real and sweeping changes in government services that would benefit those that his fellow Southerners had fought against for so long.  But he needed an army; and that army was the American people.  He needed weapons; and those weapons were sweeping progressive legislation.

But saying that we need to win a “war on poverty” is like saying we need to win a war on Tuesdays.  Tuesday is not something that consciously decided to place itself between Monday and Wednesday, forever separating these two days in the week.  Tuesday happened as part of a measure of time; it is a result of the human need to order itself in the temporal arc.  Likewise, poverty is not something that lifted up its head and said to black men, disabled people and single women “I am going to oppress you…now!”  Poverty is a result of inequity which comes from human behavior, from both the oppressors and the oppressed.  Poverty is the measure of the problem of inequity and not necessarily the real problem at all.

Looking more closely then, the human behavior that sits at the heart of the problem of inequity and results in poverty is the male ego within the American dream.  Consider this: if the ‘founding fathers’ had been less concerned with their individual rights as men (We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness….) and more interested in community, shared resources and collective mutual benefit for all human beings when they set out to establish this nation, we would have a very different picture indeed.  The name of the seminal document from which these words come says it all: the “Declaration of Independence.”  Rather than being a “Declaration of Community” or a “Declaration of Unity” it is a document that seeks, by differentiating a nation from one oppressive regime, to foster individual differentiation within a new regime so that no individual man is oppressed.  This model of individuation is above all rooted in a male centric domination concept of self importance where every man is his own ruler (king of his castle) and it is a mentality that permeates all aspects of the “American dream.”  Individual house/land ownership, upward mobility, career progress, financial growth, providing family security without public support, winning a spouse to create ones own offspring…each of these symbolize what it means in the classic sense to be an American and more specifically, what it means to be an American male.

Today, this is not just restricted to white men either.  Certainly, the founding fathers of this country were white men.  Historical and institutionalized oppression by white men in America of the indigenous tribes of this country, of immigrants, of blacks and Jews and women of all races, has been well enough documented without going on about it at length here.  However, the issue has evolved into one where, as oppressed groups continue to lift out of downtrodden positions, even slightly, they are adopting the same goals and pursuits of their oppressors.  This is why a “war on poverty” cannot be only about rich white men holding everyone else back.  Whether or not it started with white men, everyone…black, white, Latino, disabled, female, LGBTQ…are all now seeking to be in the position of privilege that is rooted in colonial style male dominance.  Everyone is looking for the individual goals of the American dream and no one is talking about how this type of individuality is based on a model of masculinity that is in itself the biggest culprit of oppressive behavior.

As we consider real solutions to poverty to achieve an Equitable Economy, we must also consider real solutions to archaic male dominance.  We need to progress from the language of “war, conquering and oppression” to a language of “respect, engagement and interdependence.”  Frequently, our culture looks at these latter qualities as being weak or submissive, but these are the same powerful qualities that bind tribes together and keep families strong.  If the “house divided against itself cannot stand” (Lincoln, 1858), why do we culturally attempt to build separate rooms?  If we can let go of the idealized male identity that is frequently defined by its ability to stand alone and conquer or rule individually defiant over evil and instead seek new gender identities that are based in a broader concept of self than the self alone, we might just stand a chance.

We absolutely need an Equitable Economy, but there really is no “war on poverty” to be won.  The only way that we will create a truly Equitable Economy is if we are able to craft new cultural identities that are liberated from classic ‘American dream’ masculinities: head of household, provider, primary breadwinner…master, President, King.  It is our challenge to make these labels obsolete in order to free not only those who have been oppressed by them but to free all men from the burden of feeling it necessary to start and then trying to win “wars” that only serve to destroy them in the end.