A tea party regular on the letters page in our local paper wrote a scathing rebuke to liberals who use generous welfare benefits to keep the poor dependent on government handouts, thus buying their votes. The best way to help the poor, she believes, is to cut jobless benefits and other welfare programs so that the poor would be free to enter the labor market and make it on their own.
I remember that argument from my high school days in the 1950s, along with a popular pamphlet about the danger of creeping socialism that would surely lead to Soviet style communism. And my memory is predated a couple of decades by claims in the 1930s that the same was true about various FDR programs aimed at easing the effects of the Great Depression. Fear more than facts.
I would like to say that such claims are without merit of any kind, but, sadly, there is a smidgen of truth in them, a smidgen being some but not much. Among a few well meaning persons, the desire to help the poor is prefaced by an assumption that they cannot help themselves without our benevolent support. It’s a type of patronizing colonialism, with the poor playing the part of uncivilized childlike people who need our care and supervision. It is also true that some persons, who live on a variety of government assistance programs and private charity, have mastered the art of survival in that context, but have no knowledge, skill, or expectation that survival is possible in any other context. It’s not a life of ease. It takes constant vigilance, an ability to maneuver through a Byzantine maze of regulations, and a keen eye for the gentle scam that might bring in a few more dollars. For all of that, it’s survival, not abundance. Well, that’s not entirely true. For certain hedge fund managers, and their kin, manipulating the system and scamming the public has made them billionaires, but that’s another story.
The greater truth lies elsewhere. Our regular letter writing tea partier and patronizing liberals each dismiss the poor with more than a little racism underwriting their beliefs and behavior. Our letter writer at least cherishes the illusion that a fair and equitable market offers opportunity for anyone who is willing to work hard enough. Some of her fellow travelers are better informed, and know that a large portion of the population will sink to the bottom, forming a permanent impoverished underclass to provide cheap labor for those who float above them. That’s the way of life, and good for those who are higher on the food chain. Government handouts just mess up the natural order of things, costing us money we don’t need to spend.
At the same time, well meaning liberals spend so much time trying to save, or expand, the social safety nets provided by governments and private charities that they fail to focus on the need for systemic reforms to make the market place more fair and equitable, and to open doors that have been culturally shut against access for others. They need to stop their patronizing, pandering ways and recognize that the poor are quite capable of functioning as mature adults in an adult world.
I’d like to think it would be easy, if we would just bend to the task, but it isn’t. Our social prejudices are firmly held and hard to let go of. Moreover, why should the poor trust the rich? They are notoriously unreliable.