New Policy Perspectives is dedicated to promoting discussion and inquiry into important contemporary issues affecting our personal lives, our culture, and our world. Of particular interest is politics, governance, criminal justice, foreign policy, the media, and economic policy.
Monday, December 9, 2013
Bah Humbug Said Society to the Poor
I am absolutely shocked at the increasing number of stories
I have seen on television by people arguing that we should be reducing
assistance for the poor, whether it be through “in kind” payments for food and
housing or direct financial assistance such as unemployment or “welfare.” These
“experts” and “talking heads” couch their opinion with arguments based on
combating fraud and stimulating changes in behavior: Let’s make their lives
more miserable as a way of motivating the poor to work harder, to try harder to
find jobs, and to save more money as a means to move out of poverty. They seem
to think that these people, already living on the margins of society, have the
means and aptitude to behave as they desire.
This assault on the poor is classic Social Darwinism, and if
you listen to the language of these “policy makers” you will hear the clear
suggestion that there is something inferior about the poor, that they are poor
because of some immutable characteristic in their genetic makeup. Not all of
them express this belief, but they are all unified in a philosophy that
believes that the lives of the poor should be made more difficult, that they
must “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and not expect help to come from
As much as I despise this callous attitude, I am equally
disturbed by the hypocrisy of these thinkers, because when it comes to their
attitudes towards the wealthy they display a completely different belief in how
to motivate “personal growth.” When it comes to the rich, their belief is that
we should “liberate” them from the reach of government by reducing taxes and regulations
that impose a “cost” on their businesses and personal ventures.
So the poor will “grow” and try harder if we in essence make
their life more difficult, but the rich will “grow” and try harder if we make
their life easier. Are they serious? Do they believe that the poor are content
with their lot in life, or that they are incapable of personal improvement? While
there are clearly poor people with little financial literacy, poor financial
IQs, and sometimes questionable spending habits, by and large all or their
money is spent on necessities; they have little if any money for discretionary
spending or saving. If we want to improve their quality of life, help them in
their quest for social mobility, and promote overall economic growth, it would
make sense to help them secure their needs so that more of their income is
available for saving or increased consumer spending. Wouldn’t it?
The wealthy have the means to either make due with less or
find some avenue for accruing what they have lost; the poor do not. Let us find
a way, either through an increase in the minimum raise or some increase in
government transfers, to give motivated poor people the opportunity to improve
their quality of life. Economically, it is the right thing to do. Morally, it
is the right thing to do. And societally, it is the right thing to do.
Unfortunately, doing the right thing is the last thing that our policy makers,
most of whom are far wealthier than their constituents, seem ready to do. Happy
holidays! And to the poor, a good night.