Here’s a quick recap of what we have learned so far.
Conservatives have developed a set of narratives to explain why our best efforts to eradicate poverty have failed. These narratives all revolve around a central core claim that programs which attempt to assist people in need actually perpetuate that need. That’s because, according to this “logic”, aid of any sort reduces the incentive to work. The foundation of this view is that if the poor were willing to work as hard as the middle class they would quickly join the middle class. Lately there has been another twist to this point of view. If the middle class were willing to work as hard as the wealthy, they would be wealthy too. These views are consistent with the conservative moral foundation that hates that possibility that anyone might be able to “cheat” the system.
A recent study by the Pew Research Center for example found that three-quarters of conservatives believe that the poor “have it easy” because of government benefits. Only 1 in 7 believe the poor lead “hard” lives.
We have gone through a very interesting eight years where a lot of these assumptions were tested.
During those eight years the ranks of the poor swelled as many previously middle class people lost their jobs, their homes, and their savings. They were forced to file for unemployment, food stamps, temporary need to dependent families, and many of the other assistance programs that are the target of conservative scorn.
Now we are finally emerging from this long period of economic decline.
If the conservative theories are correct, those who were out of work for a long period of time and receiving benefits, should be demonstrating some dependence because of the corrupting influence of those benefits. We should be able to see evidence of that dependence in a reluctance to return to work.
One example would be the number of people on food stamps. That should remain high even as the unemployment rate goes down.
The number of people filing for food stamps has gone down at pretty much the same rate as unemployment.
The same thing is true regarding the claim that poor women have children in order to support themselves with the meager benefits provided for mothers with dependents. If that actually was a strategy, we would see the birth rate among the poor go up during times of high unemployment. Instead the birth rate among the poor went down, just like it did in the overall economy.
We’ve also seen that the behavioral effects of poverty cross racial lines. As more poor people fell into poverty over the past 8 years, their families disintegrated too. They saw increases in drug use, violence, and crime. They also experienced declining health. While life expectancy among the wealthy has gone up, life expectancy among the poor has gone down.
The real answer is much simpler.
If you want people to demonstrate middle class values, you have to provide them middle class jobs.
If you want to reduce the ranks of the generationally poor, you have to break down the barriers that institutional racism use to literally wall off poor minority communities from prosperity.
Finally, we have to have an honest conversation about the value of a social safety net in preventing people from falling into poverty. The psychological and physical damage they suffer in that condition can make it difficult for them to recover.
Here are just a few examples from a study by the Federal Reserve.
Poverty is an issue for our elderly. 25% of the elderly depend entirely on Social Security benefits. 50% get more than half their income from Social Security. That’s because 30% of the rest of the population have no retirement savings or plan at all. That same percentage of people report that they went without some medical care over the past year because they couldn’t afford it. 25% reported that they or someone else in their immediate family had experienced some degree of financial hardship over the past year. 47% said that they would not be able to handle an unexpected expense of $400 or more.
That’s why those Republican states who have refused to expand Medicaid continue to put their populations of working poor at a terrible risk. They remain literally one medical emergency away from bankruptcy.
Hopefully all of this will be included in the discussions of income inequality that I hope will be part of this election year cycle.
The poor are not to blame for their condition. We are.
We have created a system that makes it very difficult for those who fall into poverty to ever get out.
We keep the working poor on the knife edge of financial collapse.
We keep the black community imprisoned in economic and physical ghettos with an asymmetrical police and legal system that punishes them for not demonstrated middle class values. Then we are shocked when every ten years or so the ghettos explode in violence and frustration.
The data is there.
The changes are obvious.
All that is lacking is the will for conservatives to overcome their bias and have an honest an open discussion about how to address the root causes of poverty rather than simply blame the poor for their condition.