Correcting the Poor: The Civilizing Impulses of Homo Corporatus and Private Charities

By Falguni A. Sheth
Crossposted at Translation Exercises

Should anyone—the state or any other source–have an obligation to interfere with you to bring your best, flourishing, self about?

Certainly, this is the debate that philosophers such as Isaiah Berlin and libertarians such as Robert Nozick have engaged in heartily, with a view to socialist frameworks that redistribute resources in order to produce selected kinds of outcomes. Should the state impose certain ideals and goals upon you, and why? There are also numerous examples of good state-imposed expectations such as seatbelts or prohibitions against drunk driving, as well as terrible examples, such as state-imposed prohibitions on certain kinds of drugs.

In a neoliberal era, the corollary to above question is whether non-state organizations should have the ability to interfere with you in order to bring your best, flourishing, self about?

This question emerges in the wake of the heralded contrition of Sam Polk, as expressed in a New York Times opinion piece, where he offered a self-congratulatory description of his decision to give up being a Wall Street trader and “money addict,” and instead to form a charity that awards “grocery scholarships” to “poor moms.”

Polk’s charity, Groceryships, on its face appears to be a thoughtful idea.  Indeed, the basic Groceryship is a “scholarship for groceries.”

Soon a simple one emerged: what if we bought groceries for a family for six months. I imagined a single mom, working overtime to try to put food on her table, and falling short. We wanted to give that mom some breathing room, and her kid some healthy food in the process. 

The language of Groceryships appears neutral, but tells a story that reveals a number of assumptions about poor folks. In his tale about how Groceryships started, Polk gives a narrative about how he and his physician wife learned about eating better. And how they might be healthier if they ate better (apparently, this was previously unknown to them).  So they got to work, switching to whole foods, eliminating processed and fatty foods. Though they suffered “withdrawal” from their addiction to unhealthy foods, they were able to kick their habit (addiction seems to be the lens by which Polk understands many phenomena).

We started buying tons of vegetables and whole grains, and cut down on fatty meats, sugar, and processed foods. It was hard. Very hard. Kirsten and I both experienced what we can only describe as withdrawal symptoms—nightmares, panicky feelings, irritability.

After a few weeks those symptoms faded. We found we enjoyed eating healthy and especially how good we felt. We no longer had to battle ourselves about whether to eat another Cheetos, or felt shame about eating too much cake. That everyday battle-stress just faded away. We ate at mealtimes, snacked when hungry, and felt great. After three months, Kirsten got her cholesterol levels tested. They’d been cut in half. She went off Lipitor.

Polk and his spouse were so impressed with the results that they wanted to share their newfound knowledge and to give back to society at the same time.

A few months later, we watched A Place At The Table (sic), a documentary focused on the staggering numbers of Americans, especially children, facing food insecurity. Each day 50 million people in this country (including one in four children) go hungry.

Growing up, my parents struggled, living paycheck to paycheck. But it never got so bad that food wasn’t on the table. Kirsten and I were horrified that so many people—kids!—were hungry. We were especially horrified that many of these kids lived down the street from us. Los Angeles is a segregated city. It’s easy to forget that just a few miles away people were starving.

I guess the truth is that we had known that; we’d just never taken ownership of our responsibility to do something about it. That day, we decided to help.

Polk recognizes the correlation between poverty and hunger, but he frames this correlation in the language of “choice” and options:

Hunger in America looks strange; there is a definite correlation between food insecurity and obesity. You’d think that people who can’t afford food would be rail thin, but it’s often the opposite. People that struggle to make ends meet tend to opt for the cheapest calories, processed/fast food. They often live in Food Deserts, areas where nutritious produce is simply not available. (Emphasis mine)

Perhaps the implied causation was inadvertent. Perhaps Polk recognizes that such “opting” is the result of being short of cash. In which case, the solution would be to distribute sufficient money to buy healthier food. And certainly, that seems to have been the initial idea, but Polk frames the solution in these terms:

…we realized that mom could also use some nutrition education and group support. We remembered how difficult quitting sugar and processed/fast food was for us, and we realized that a structure of support would be helpful, necessary.

It suggests helpfully, liberally, perhaps due to no fault of their own, that poor moms don’t know much about nutrition.  So, families who receive a “Groceryship” will be supported not only financially, but medically, educationally, and emotionally. Support typically means resources are available to help one advance towards a goal, but not mandated. By contrast, mandatory resources are not forms of support, but a form of discipline: if you must avail yourself of a resource, then you are not supported, rather you are compelled.

Groceryship awards are not merely the distribution of groceries with the “option” of attending nutrition classes; rather the classes are required. “Poor moms” who apply for the meritorious award must swear their allegiance and commitment to attending nutrition classes, “weekly meetings” and to do weekly homework. It’s as if they were young, naïve, subservient children.

Indeed, Polk acknowledges that his program is different from “but can be used in conjunction with SNAP (food stamps) which provides financial to support to struggling families (link not in original),

but doesn’t insist the money be spent on healthful foods, or teach families how to prepare and shop for those healthy foods.” (emphasis mine)

In that simple sentence, Polk reveals more of his (limited) worldview: the state “does not insist that the money be spent on healthful foods.”

Had Polk searched, he would have found that, if anything, food stamps severely constrain the purchase of healthy foods. According to the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, the maximum monthly budget for a family of 4 (i.e. those who have no other income) on food stamps is $632.

That boils down to $5.64 per person per day. Whole Foods, expensive as it is, accepts food stamps; there are multiple sites where families have accepted the “Thrifty Whole Foods” challenge to shop for whole foods on a food stamp budget. I’ll let them tell their stories—many of which have various helpful hints about how to shop and cook on a limited budget.

In short: it is possible to cook healthy foods on a severely restricted budget. But healthy foods require adequate kitchen facilities to process and cook them.  Poor families, who can presumably afford housing that is cheap (cheap because landlords don’t make repairs to provide decent stoves, rat- and cockroach-proof storage, adequate refrigerators needed to store fresh foods), often do not have those facilities, therefore tenants are forced to choose processed, sealable, storable foods.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, time (or more its scarcity) becomes a severe constraint if a “poor mom” is also working or doesn’t have access to child-care so that she can schlep to her Whole Foods easily/quickly, and also process said healthy foods. Access to transportation that allows her to get to her Whole Foods will also, chances are, further constrain her free cooking time.  But all of these constraints raise another urgent issue: namely the assumption that someone who is both cash- and time-poor is expected to cook whole foods after long, difficult, days. How many working professionals are expected to cook full, healthy meals after a full day of work?

Aside from the sheer difficulty of spending money on “healthful foods,” there is also the issue of why any state should impose a certain standard on those who are dependent upon public monies for survival, when it does not impose the same expectations on the rest of its citizens.  It calls to mind Isaiah Berlin’s discussion of positive liberty.

For Berlin, positive liberty–defined as the ability to “be my own master,”[1] is least harmful when I am able to decide how to live my own life, to make my own decisions, rather than to have to depend upon external forces. As a counterpart to negative liberty, namely that where I would be protected from being harmed by others and the state, positive liberty allows me to find a way to flourish, to decide how I want to live.  In this idea, Berlin marks an idea that re-emerges a decade later in Hannah Arendt. Arendt criticizes the “Social,” that dimension of society that is subsumed by the economy, where one’s acts are instrumental—where one works in order to make a living.[2]

For Arendt, this idea undermines our very humanness. It coerces us into thinking only about life, about living, rather than acting, understood as great words and great deeds. The economy, with its inducement to consume, to work in order to live and consume—was anathema to Arendt. Arendt was critical of the notion that one’s goals must have utility. Being healthy exemplifies this idea: Health has become naturalized as an end in itself, but in fact is about usefulness: to be less of a drain on society, to be aesthetically pleasing, to appear successful.

To be fair, Arendt’s is precisely not a socialist ideal, where one’s needs are met through a communal society, where one hunts, fishes, reads, in the model of a balanced life. Nevertheless, Arendt’s fear comports with Berlin’s, who skeptically asks:

“What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?”

To find a way to flourish without being forced to live out another’s expectations for you—this was both Arendt’s and Berlin’s concern. This question was a challenge to the authoritarian state whose creeping influence, in their experiences, had been detrimental, to say the least.

But the creeping state is not the issue at stake with regard to Sam Polk and Groceryships. Rather, the issue of state-imposed expectations has been derailed with the forceful emphasis on civil society as the arena by which to solve various social and economic problems.

Civil society, a term that G.W.F. Hegel used to indicate that arena where the public and private meet, has a distinctly different sense today. Whereas Hegel circumscribed civil society as that where the individual and the state can interact through intermediate organizations such as guilds, or unions, today’s civil society is that arena where the state has dialed back its obligations in order to allow private organizations and individuals to pick up the slack.

Polk’s charity, like so many others (such as Teach for America, charter schools, Kiva) that have sprung up recently, reflects the success of a paradigm that has emerged over the last 3 decades. This paradigm endorses private, faith-based, or “non-profit” charities as the foundation of civil society (defined as a non-government sector). These organizations, endorsed by every U.S. President since Ronald Reagan, have facilitated the evacuation of a public safety net—an evacuation that goes hand in hand with the deregulation of the banking industry, and the steady erosion of unions, public pensions, and labor protections.

Certainly, it is unreasonable to expect that the state can or will address all levels of public need. But private charities have fewer Congressional or procedural inhibitions upon what they may demand of the constituents that they intend to help, such as the ability to impose certain behavioral features.

Groceryships imposes many strings for the mere flaw of being poor.  According to the rules of applying for a Groceryship, being poor apparently means one chooses to eat unhealthily. Being poor apparently means that one is “addicted” to fast foods and sugar (this isn’t such a far-fetched idea for Polk, who frames his past actions in finance as the result of an “an addiction” to wealth).

Thus, to be eligible for a Groceryship, poor moms can’t have excessively large families (“no more than 3 children”), and must be only moderately poor. And they “must” need/want/be eager/be motivated/be ready to adopt a healthy lifestyle, to want to be healthy, to be open to new ideas. See here.

Groceryships’ expectations fit into the neoliberal paradigm that I discussed in another piece, namely that poor people, more so than the non-poor, have an obligation to be moral, aesthetically reasonable, healthy, happy, and eager about it.

The most vulnerable—or as I say elsewhere, those who are perceived to be unruly—are seen as scary, dangerous, frightful because they are seen as “failures” due to their personal characters rather than through their circumstances: Why are they poor? Why don’t they eat better? Why are they fat? Why are they rude? Why are they noisy and loud?

If the poor just worked harder, smoked less, didn’t do drugs, shunned McDonald’s and cooked more, then they too could be as aesthetically pleasing—and perhaps as successful and happy as Sam Polk and his spouse.  This is one of the pernicious implications of a neoliberal economic model: the poor are expected to fulfill upper-class aesthetic and moral expectations about what it means to live “a good life”…to flourish. And they are subject to that same upper class, which is in the best position to dictate the life goals for those who are more vulnerable.

Being poor means that if one wants to have one’s poverty relieved slightly or temporarily (remember, the Groceryship is for 6 months, after which one still remains poor), one is at the mercy of the ex-money addict Sam Polk and his neoliberal buddies, who are cheered for “helping the poor.”

Let’s remember that Polk’s money-addiction days were part of a milieu—a group of traders/financiers/bankers who were engaging in a set of practices that were both induced and condoned by state power and general pre-financial crisis societal approval. That is to say, his role in JP Morgan Chase, or other financial corporations who contributed heavily to the banking crisis (including mortgage foreclosures on the working class and minority populations) was seen as a positive contribution, until around 2008/9. Moreover, the state—both Congress and the Executive Branch–continues to condone it through (pro-banking) legislation that allowed CEOs to receive large bonuses in spite of their roles, or through supposedly punitive legislation that slapped banks lightly on their corporate wrists, and paid out less than $2000 per person to those who lost their homes over a three year period.  Moreover, this settlement changed nothing in the relationship between the borrowers and their loan servicing companies.

By framing Polk’s actions within an individualizing framework (be it therapeutic or moral conscience), and without locating them in a larger political/cultural structure, this frame precisely engenders the kind of glorification that is showered upon Polk, by Jacqueline Novogratz and many others such as Rachel Cook, Jessica Jackley…and the Nobel Peace Prize winning innovator of microfinance himself, Mohammed Yunus, who are engaged in similar, if not identical, shifts.

What Polk et al. appear to be doing here is making a move from a “corporate free market” to a “non-profit free market,” which in no way challenges the idea that poverty and wealth are exclusively about individual choices. Rather, Polk’s (and Novogratz and Yunus) shifts still emphasize the ideology and primacy of the “free market,” coupled with a rhetorical emphasis on hard work, along with individual moral, personal, social accountability for darker or non-American populations.  In Yunus’ case, micro-lending is tested in Bangladesh; for Novogratz, it’s taken to East Africa, India, Pakistan and Ghana, and for Polk, it’s applied to black and Latino populations of Southern California.

But another aspect of this is also troublesome: the self-satisfaction experienced by these “free market successes” who reclaim their moral sensibilities through the act of walking away after making millions in profits and then turning to “help the poor” on their terms. They are cheered for their charity work (in an individualist frame) without being asked about their participation in a financially and morally bankrupt “free market” system that allowed these individuals to “flourish” at the expense of millions of individuals who are unable to succeed. This is because they don’t have the connections or “moral luck” to have been born in the right place at the right time.  As economist Dean Baker clarifies in his book, The Conservative Nanny State, there is nothing “free” about the free market: it is rigged to benefit those who already have at the expense of those who don’t.

As well: this kind of neoliberal framework ensures that the ruling class will discipline the poor, by forcing them to reshape themselves as a condition of receiving boons from seemingly neutral, generous, charities such as  Polk’s, which models ill-informed visions of what it means to be a successful citizen.

This, then, is an expression of Michel Foucault’s biopolitics: those who are induced to cultivate themselves in the image of the ruling class are those who are the most vulnerable and subject to the whims and dictates of the wealthy and powerful.  This is the success of the neoliberal paradigm: it renders to Homo Corporatus (or Homo Wall Streetus) the freedom and flexibility to shape the actions and character of the most vulnerable to those who have the money, the power, and the favor of the state; simultaneously Homo Corporatus’ contributions, the rewards of plunder and the corporate nanny state are interpreted as an individual acts of generosity that supposedly help those who are the most needy, that is to say, those who were rendered needy through perverse governmentally-sanctioned financial practices.


[1] Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” p. 131. In Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford U Press: 1969.

[2] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, ch. 6. University of Chicago Press, 1958.

14 Responses to Correcting the Poor: The Civilizing Impulses of Homo Corporatus and Private Charities

  1. Falguni’s essays are a fantastic addition to NEP.

  2. Perfect.
    Exactly right to tie in microfinance with this too.

  3. I can’t help picturing the humiliation of Frank McCourt’s (“Angela’s Ashes”) mother going before the Catholic charities to ask for food assistance for her starving family. If this is the best system we can devise as rational humans, God help us.

  4. So, what then should be the source(s) of proper moral and social behaviour?

  5. Recently, activists successfully lobbied against the construction of a Trader Joe’s in South Philly. Apparently being unhealthy, eating junk food and throwing trash in the streets keeps gentrification and rising rents at bay. The thought of a Trader Joe’s and carrot juice nearby, makes a poor person’s blood run cold.

    Of course, educating the poor and the non conformist is older than neoliberalism, it came over on the Mayflower. It is the backbone of Protestant Ethic values. If my infinitely practical Prussian grandmother ran a soup kitchen, she would have her leather strap nearby to educate new mothers about healthy choices. As any New Englander knows, the closer you come to Plymouth Rock, the more apt you are to find an old spinster willing to tell you how to live your life. It is not a coincidence that the ne’er-do-wells moved to Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, while the scolds lived on the coast.

    Around 1900, we had a resurgence of moral and physical values initiated by Herbert Spencer and the concept of survival of the fittest. Scientists investigated the genetic foundations of bad behaviors and sociologists discovered why the poor remained poor (poor choices, lack of personal responsibility, large families). Economist Irving Fisher opened the Life Extension Institute and published “How to Live”. Rex Beach wrote about “strong hairy men doing strong hairy deeds” and Samuel Merwin wrote about Randian working heroes leading men and making the right choices. In the mean time, my mother was hiding behind the winged back chair, avoiding her mother slashing away with the dreaded leather strap, until my mother made the right choices. No spoiled children in her family.

    • That educational bent wasn’t conceived on the Mayflower, however. We can trace it back through the Reformation, Feudalism, Roman law and practices, Sparta, and if we had the records probably back to Lucy and her tribe that climbed down from the trees.

      • The “Lucy” thing irks me big time. When I was young (a gazillion years ago), I, as a college student attended one of Johanson’s lectures when he had just gotten back from “discovering” Lucy’s bones. He did tell us that he found them in a washout (essentially a ditch) that was long. However, what he did not tell us and what I did not learn until much later by watching him on a NOVA program was that the bones were scattered over a really long area, with lots and lots of other bones. In that program he satated that the bones did not fit together. But then he had a brilliant idea, he decided that the bones must have been compressed by two million years of earth being on them! Not to worry. He showed us his sawing the bones in his workshop and making them fit. Since he showed us everything he was doing, all I can think of was this was a classic case of self-deception. It appears to me that “Lucy” is a hodgepodge of bones belonging to how many creatures? and of what kind? Still, he made a good living off of the old girl, so I guess it is hard to fault him–what with grants and academic appoints and all. I lost my faith in “peer-reviewed” a long time ago. If you figure out what they do in economics, you can just about bet your bottom dollar they do it in other fields as well. We might have sprung from ape-types, but Lucy sure isn’t proof of it, in my opinion. Sometimes which I watched “scientists” at work, I am amazed at how they “think.”

      • Sorry for the poor proofreading above. But one more thing. Maybe Paul Simon has it right: “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all….” Or as Dr. Wray in his lecture at Lewis and Clark College quoted Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” We have to spend a lot of time “unlearning” what we have been taught. We have been taught next to nothing about our money system (as is apparent from Economics graduates) and we are “told” constantly that we are in debt to China, that we are broke, that the debt is the biggest threat to our existence, etc. We were told that there were WMDs in Iraq (I didn’t believe it), and were lead to believe that Iraq had something to do with 9-11 (I didn’t believe that either). Geesh, go lightly on conspiracy theorists, would you? One has to work hard to believe all of this is just ignorance or “poor intelligence”. I refuse to believe that people sprang from apes. Apes are way too smart. They know that a banana is a banana. Congressmen can’t figure out that a Federal Reserve note, a treasury bond, and digits in a reserve account all come from the same Fountain Head (I put that in for the Ayn Randians)–yeah, like they would be reading a post here.

        • Thanks for the comments. I was using the term “Lucy and her tribe” symbolically to represent early hominids in their tribal (familial) groups and did not mean to imply that the punitive bent of human societies was in any way the result of a female progenitor. Field studies of the great apes would indicate that that trait is probably a male proclivity. Females of the genera have other, subtler and gentler methods of maintaining discipline and order, which would have undoubtedly served us far better had the Lucy s been able to establish and maintain a matriarchy; IMHO. The story about Johanson cutting and pasting Lucy together is both amusing and sobering, considering the seriousness of the implications.

  6. This is so unspeakably beyond idiocy it only brings to mind the proper use for the guillotine, dating back to its most popular usage, during the French Revolution.

    What we need and demand in America is some form of meritocratic structure, beginning with a meritocratic school system, which begins with the nationalization of American public education and an end to the present capitalist educational system setup.

    The closest many of us have ever come to any meritocratic structure was the US military (during the draft, as I can’t speak to what the present volunteer system), and all we see today are professional stalkers, like Jeb Bush’s son, George P. Bush, becoming private equity parasites.

  7. Our present sectary of the treasury, Jack Lew, made big bucks at Citigroup, which had to be bailed out with TARP funds, some of which went to pay for Jack Lew’s $900,000 bonus.

    Jack Lew claims today that the reason for unemployment and inequality is a lack of job skills and education.

    Well, we know where the education funds are going: Lew was forgiven hundreds of thousands of dollars in mortgage loans by the university he was employed at, the same university where he ended the collective bargaining rights of graduate students.

    And Lew is the least offensive example of all the incredibly offensive examples of cretinous lowlifes out there, especially those who should now be sitting in jail, or hanging from a rope: they who brought about and profited from the economic meltdown, those at Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo, John Paulson’s hedge fund, the ratings agencies, Magnetar Capital, etc., etc.

  8. I think the same impulse that demands we funnel money towards job training rather than actual jobs is the same impulse that devises scams schemes like “groceryships”.
    There is a missionary zeal to folks like Sam Polk that is reminiscent of temperance crusaders.

  9. John Christensen

    Similar things happened during the Great Depression years when visiting a soup kitchen often meant having to listen to a sermon before food was served.
    Prior to that even, the robber barons of the late 19th and early 20th centuries would give a fraction of their wealth away to philanthropic gestures like building a school or museum etc (with ones name on it of course). The message wasn’t really about the building, there was a lesson in it, glorifying the system that put so much purchasing power into the hands of one individual, removing the tiny little sense of guilt extreme inequality may have been causing that individual to feel, serving a parallel role to the concept of divine right as it applied to monarchs in even earlier times.

    Today of course, you can often just bid at an auction for the rights to have your name displayed on a mostly publicly funded institution or facility like a skating rink, an arena ,or market square for a fraction of the full cost; all in the spirit of public private ‘partnership’, so efficient, a neo liberal favorite, courtesy of federal governments who don’t get that insufficient spending at their level means thousands of local projects for which insufficient funds exist, creating the need for the communities to relinquish the attribution of their achievements to the corporation or individual that coughs up that last dollar after the coffers run bare.

    When society fails to trumpet wealth, wealth does an end run around society. Philanthropy with strings attached is not philanthropy at all.