Who you are doesn’t have to hamper how well you live in U.S.

It's becoming something of a fad in certain so-called liberal circles to assert that an emphasis on diversity is trumping efforts to combat poverty.

When social thinker Walter Benn Michaels, an English professor in Chicago, writes in the American Prospect that "our identity is the least important thing about us," he falls into the trap of all economic determinists - ignorance of how life is actually lived.

If they're conservative determinists, they see poverty as a personal and moral failing. If they are liberal determinists, they see poverty as a class issue, often missing the role identity-prejudice plays in social and economic injustice.

Michaels attacks diversity, saying that "almost everything we say about culture - that the significant differences between us are cultural, that such differences should be respected, that our cultural heritages should be perpetuated, that there's a value in making sure different cultures survive - seems to me mistaken."

He argues that we "must shift our focus from cultural diversity to economic equality to help alter the political terrain of contemporary American intellectual life."

Why choose economics over culture? They both go hand in hand.

I see poverty stemming from three sources:

Physical and mental disabilities attached to all manner of illnesses, ages, incapacities and stations of life. In a just society, no one should suffer economic hardship for what they cannot help.

Racism, sexism and other forms of prejudice and bias that limit opportunity in an unjust society.

And subtlest but greatest, the wage structure and exploitation of labor that make the economy hum along for the haves, unjustly sinking all boats but the battleships and the yachts.

The least significant source of poverty is what reactionary lingo claims is the most significant - lack of personal discipline and effort. People work for low pay because they have no other choice. People with family responsibilities often must work two or three jobs in modern America. That's a truly debilitating social evil.

Nonwealthy Americans can't make a decent return on their savings. Low interest rates benefit the wealthy when they borrow money, while high credit card interest bleeds away what the financially precarious might save.

Taxes and inflation hurt, of course, but tax rates are set by the rich for the rich, and inflation - from the manipulation of gas prices, for example - is hugely regressive in the harm it does to the less well-off.

It is a good idea to incorporate social class into a program of ensuring diversity in employment and university enrollment. But one does not have to choose between class and culture to promote fairness.

Acknowledgment of diversity is not to blame for continued poverty. For most of us, our identity - friends, neighborhoods, extended families, traditions and solidarities - is the only sustenance and source of power we have in a rich person's economy.

V.B. Price is an Albuquerque free-lance writer, author, editor and commentator.
December 9, 2006