What The Irish Can Teach Us

Now that we’ve all been Irish for a day–donning the green, marching or watching parades and downing those pints at the local bar, we might ask ourselves [whether we’re from Irish American backgrounds or not]: Is there anything more the Irish can teach us?

Running across an essay by Barbara Ehrenreich on American poverty, specifically the lingering, depressing notion of the ‘culture of poverty’ and

Dublin's Famine Memorial

having listened to Charles Murray on Book TV discuss his recent book,  “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2012,” I think the answer is a resounding ‘yes.’

As Ehrenreich reminds us, the idea that poor people are inherently different than the affluent and in fact, need to be changed, corrected, put right has been an enduring theme of the conservative right.  The inequality between the poor and the rich is not a matter of jobs or opportunity, education or money, so the theory goes.  It’s about the poor being substantially flawed.  They lack core values: ambition, get-up-and-go, faith, and the ability to plan for the future.  The poor are impulsive, promiscuous, prone to addiction and crime and, as Ehrenreich points out, theorists all contend that the poor ‘certainly cannot be trusted with money.’

Charles Murray’s presentation picks up on the ‘culture of poverty’ theory and runs with it like a champion of reason and rightness.  The American Project, Murray contends, the continuation of a civil society is threatened because the working class and upper-middle class are of a different kind altogether. The unraveling of America has nothing to do with the inequality of income but the inequality of culture.

Murray uses two ‘symbolic’ communities to illustrate his thesis: Belmont and Fishtown though both communities actually exist—Belmont, an affluent neighborhood outside Boston and Fishtown, a working class neighborhood of Philadelphia.  Murray goes on to compare the two communities in four main areas: marriage, industriousness, honesty, and religiosity.  And surprise, surprise.  Fishtown gets a failing grade on all scores.

What does this have to do with the Irish?  I suggest a quick trip back in time, say to the mid-19th century during what became known as the Great Hunger.

Ireland was heavily populated with subsistence/tenant farmers, generally in debt to their English landlords.  Most have heard of the ‘great potato blight’ of 1845-1849 when over 1 million Irish died of starvation.  What many may not know is that the the affluent English landlords were exporting an abundance of grain, meat and dairy for profit as the Irish poor starved.  And the conservative government response?  Their policy was one of laissez faire, leave well enough alone.  As the Assistant Secretary of Ireland reportedly said at the time: to give the people something for nothing, ‘would have the country on us for an indefinite time.’  The fear of dependency was greater than watching the population starve. Free market policies and workhouses became popular.  But still people died.  In droves.  The fields of once blighted potatoes became graveyards.

How were the Irish viewed by ‘polite’ English society?  The Irish were considered brutish, lazy, devious, promiscuous, prone to crime and heavy drinking.  Worse yet—they were Catholic.

The point is that this warped view on poverty is not new.  Nor are the political responses.  Even when a population was starving to death en masse, the response in Ireland was an ideological one: people had to work to be fed, even when they were too weak and sick to stand upright.

The Irish know this. They remembered it well and passed the bleak stories down to their descendants.  The impoverished Irish immigrants, those who came to America [if they survived the ocean crossing], found the same weary stereotypes waiting on another shore.  Anyone with Irish American grandparents or other family oldsters have likely heard the tales of blatant bigotry while growing up—the ‘no dogs or Irish’ signs in shop windows.

Still I found it amazing that Murray could say the main problem threatening the Nation today is not income inequality but cultural inequality.  Minx wrote a very effective piece last week on the growing poverty in the US.   Cited in her post was a statement by Tavis Smiley, who is pushing to have the issue of exploding poverty included in the 2012 election:

Women are much more likely to be poor than men, and more than a million children have fallen into poverty, and more than 500,000 have fallen into extreme poverty” — that is, living on less than $2 a day — “since 2010.”
Recent census data shows that the number of children who live in extreme poverty has doubled from 1996 to 2011, from 1.4 million to 2.8 million.

And yet, as Minx pointed out a number of states: Kansas, Utah and Nebraska have initiated policies to cut food stamps to needy children.

Well here’s a factoid that turns the whole cultural argument on its head: the fastest growing segment of the newly poor are in suburban neighborhoods.

Warrensville Heights, Cleveland suburb, photo:dustin franz,NYT

Some of this is due to changing demographics but the larger percentage has to do with long-term unemployment, stagnate wages, off-shoring, the housing debacle, etc., etc.  Here’s a chilling study from the same link:

Mark Rank, a social welfare professor at Washington University in St. Louis, has written extensively about shifts in U.S. poverty since the 1960s, and finds that Americans today are more likely to face poverty than in the past. According to Rank’s data, 24 percent of people who were in their 20s in the 1970s were likely to experience poverty at some point in their lives. That number rose to 31 percent in the 1980s and 37 percent in the 1990s. Today a majority of Americans-51.4 percent, according to the Urban Institute-will experience poverty by the time they’re 65.

Are we to believe that this sudden shift to poverty or expectation of poverty is all about lost moral/cultural compasses?   Charles Murray would say, ‘yes.’  He suggests that the upper-middle class reach out, reintegrate and reeducate the working classes in the four pillars of civil society: marriage, industriousness, honesty and religiosity.  Note that Murray’s study just happens to begin at the soon-to-be turbulent 1960s.  Ahhh, if only we could go back to those Father Knows Best days.

In contrast, Barbara Ehrenreich pointedly says:

. . . a new discovery of poverty is long overdue. This time, we’ll have to take account not only of stereotypical Skid Row residents and Appalachians, but of foreclosed-upon suburbanites, laid-off tech workers, and America’s ever-growing army of the “working poor.” And if we look closely enough, we’ll have to conclude that poverty is not, after all, a cultural aberration or a character flaw. Poverty is a shortage of money.

My suggestion?  Find yourself an Irish grandmother, the older the better.  She’ll give you an earful. Generational memory is a powerful thing!


12 Comments on “What The Irish Can Teach Us”

  1. Susie Madrak says:

    I didn’t read the book, but it’s worth pointing out that Fishtown is a gentrifying neighborhood whose indigenous population is largely Irish Catholic. From my experience, I’d say that the more-negative view of Fishtown life on which Murray focuses is largely due to the widespread alcohol and drug abuse, and the passive acceptance by the family enablers. It also has a lot to do with the unquestioning acceptance of the Catholic teachings, which pretty much leaves the young women hostage to whatever stray sperm happens to fertilize their egg.

  2. bostonboomer says:

    I live less than a mile from the the Belmont line. I live in the next town, and my hairdresser is in Belmont Center. I do much of my grocery shopping in Belmont.

    Trust me, Murray’s depiction of Belmont is really twisted. It’s a fairly affluent community–a little bit more affluent than the one I live in, but not much. Around here the towns run into each other. It’s hard to even tell which town you’re in.

    I wonder if Murray picked Belmont because Mitt Romney lived there as Governor? Anyway, there are poor and average neighborhoods in Belmont, just as there are in every northwest Boston suburb. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are elderly people there living in extreme poverty. The home values shot up so fast around here that many people can no longer afford the taxes and upkeep on the homes they’ve owned for half a century or more.

    Excellent post, Peggy Sue. Thank you.

  3. peggysue22 says:

    Thanks, BB. It was really hard to listen to Murray’s presentation. Interesting info on Belmont from your personal perspective, too. Until quite recently, my two nephews lived in Fishtown [rents are cheaper]. I can assure you neither fits the stereotype that Murray offers. I suspect his defense would be that the use of Belmont and Fishtown were merely ‘symbolic’ to serve the extended argument.

    And yet, the book and theory have received all sorts of kudos, even from the press. I suspect today’s journalists and columnists see themselves as part of the beleaguered upper-middle class, those defending the cultural core against the impoverished barbarians at the gate.

    Could the disconnect be any greater?? Makes my head hurt.

    • bostonboomer says:

      Mostly the conservative press from what I’ve seen. Murray’s reputation is terrible since The Bell Curve. I used to be on a psychology mailing list that he was on. He spent most of his time arguing for his claims that whites are inherently more intelligent than blacks. Ugh!

      • quixote says:

        Murray’s more proof that you can always get a hearing if you tell people what they want to hear. Ugh, indeed.

        The thing that gets me about his “moral rot” arguments is that they prove the opposite point. Whose general lack of ethics bankrupts economies and leads to wars, time and again, all through history? The elites. Not the poor.

        If you want to argue that cultural inequality is the source of our problems, by his own rules there’s only one class to look at.

  4. foxyladi14 says:

    wonderful post, Peggy Sue :)

    • HT says:

      Ditto – funny about the moneyed elite, they are equal opportunity folks in terms of who they oppress.

  5. bostonboomer says:

    OT- I don’t know if anyone else is interested, but Ohio U. upset USF and made it into the Sweet 16 as a 13th seed. Purdue is beating up on number 2 seed KU at the moment too. I can decide who to root for in that one, since I have ties to both.