February 2 2012
We Do Need to Care About the Very Poor
Carrie L. Lukas
It's a classic gotcha political moment. Candidate Romney uttered a phrase ripe for plucking for campaign ads that will gel perfectly with the image of him as a member of the out-of-touch, super rich, one-percent club, having his shoes shined while joyfully laying off the masses to boost corporate profits.
And certainly, if you view politics as sport, this was an unforced error that those competing in the big leagues shouldn't make. Romney's been campaigning long enough to know how his statement would be twisted, and open him up to the charges of being callous, even racist, which always lurk for any right-of-center candidate.
Yet it's not Romney's words “I'm not concern about the very poor,” that I find disturbing: I know that this is a phrase taken out of context, not meant to indicate an actual indifference to the fate of poor Americans. It's the context itself—that Romney thinks that the existence of an already robust public safety net is a reason that candidates, the government, and conservatives in particular, should focus their efforts and attention elsewhere—that's troubling.
Conservatives should be very concerned about how our public systems act not as a safety net that keeps people from falling, but as one that tangles people up and holds them in place.
The many income support systems that make it easier to not work or find a first (even crummy) job may ultimately be counterproductive and end up keeping poor people poor longer. These programs are increasingly not just helping the “very poor,” but are bleeding into the middle class, making more Americans dependent on government and discouraging the kind of entrepreneurialism and boot-strap work ethic that's been so foundational to the American experience.
I recently saw a chart showing how the very poor in Mississippi end up having more disposable income than the middle class once all of government's benefits are taken into account. Regardless of whether the precise figures are accurate, it's a disturbing snapshot of the direction we seem to be heading in. Government is creating a system in which it may not really pay to work and try your best.
That's a far bigger problem that just its economic/tax and budget implications. As Libby wrote yesterday, Charles Murray has a new book out showing an increasingly divided America in which it's not just income, but lifestyle that separates the classes.
David Brooks comes to the idiotic conclusion that somehow this is a reason for a massive national service project so that everyone has to spend more time together, which really misses the point entirely. This isn't two tribes who have different cuisine and will benefit from exposure to a wider variety of tastes. The core problem Murray identifies is that a growing segment of America has rejected the institutions and behaviors that are associated with progress and financial stability. Failure to work, get training, and form stable family units are behaviors that we need to discourage, not just get better acquainted with. The question is why is so much of society is embracing self-destructive behaviors, and policy makers should consider how government is encouraging this terrible trend.
Government policy certainly isn't the only cause, but it's a contributor to it. Our nation's leaders—or would-be leaders—shouldn't take comfort in the existence of a robust government safety net, but consider why so many people are falling into it and how that may be one of our fundamental problems.