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 society.

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.



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