The left has stopped talking about poverty

bernie-sandersPoverty used to be a major theme in politics, especially from the left. No longer. Bernie Sanders hardly uses the words “poverty” or “poor” in his speeches. That’s not to say he does not touch on related issues, or policies which he believes would help, but it is not the defining theme of his campaign, even though his focus is economic issues.

For example, Sanders wants to make college tuition free, including debt-free for everyone. No doubt he believes that’s good for poor people. While that’s not necessarily so, as people from poorer families already have access to various scholarships and grants, and may face extra competition for places if other people don’t pay either, there is no doubting the Senator’s sincerity. But like most other people on the left, Sanders no longer focuses his rhetoric on solving poverty. He argues that “working people” deserve a “living wage”. Maybe that’s his euphemism for dealing with poverty, but even this does not seem to be his passion.

There is one socio-economic group that gets a mention – and usually several – in every Sanders speech: billionaires. He also talks about the top one percent and the top 0.1%. He has stopped talking about the poor because he is now obsessed with the rich. 

As Ayn Rand said in 1961 “In Soviet Russia the scapegoat was the bourgeoisie. In Nazi Germany it was the Jewish people. In America it is the businessman”. Today’s language, with which Rand was unfamiliar, designates the scapegoats as “the one percent” which makes it even clearer than it was in 1961 than ever that this is a persecuted minority – the title of her lecture.

Why, then, has the left moved from talking about poverty to talking about wealth? It seems like an odd shift. It is easy to see why some people being extremely poor is a problem. People can be too poor. This is a hardship for them and, even if you are concerned only with your own interests, it is potentially destabilizing to society as a whole if people are literally starving. There is no deterrent which will prevent someone who is starving from stealing food.

But how is it your problem if people have “too much” money? What can even, reasonably, be meant by “too much”? Perhaps it means more money than you think they deserve. But what do you really know about the lives of these people? “Too little” can have a clear and objective meaning. “Too much” is necessarily vague. “Too little” can, and should, offend your moral sense. But “too much” harms no-one. If you believe, on the best information you have, that someone has more money than she or he deserves, this is surely no more than irritating rather than morally offensive?

But even on a global level, the extreme poverty which was the norm for most of humanity throughout most of history is being solved. In 1990 37% of people lived in extreme poverty. In 2015 the proportion fell below 10% for first time in human history. This was far, far, ahead of the Millennium Development Goals. They set the target, seen as challenging at the time, of cutting extreme poverty in half.

With poverty well on the way to being solved the left has to worry about a new “problem”. 



Quentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at


  1. Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery.
    Winston Churchill

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