Is it useful to make generalizations about whole classes of people? We all know the reasons why it’s not—they stoke prejudice, crush nuance, distort reality, are unkind and unfair.
Perhaps the biggest political puzzle of our time is why, as the lives of working-class whites have descended from the stability and comfort of “All in the Family” to the chaos and despair of “Gran Torino” and “Winter’s Bone,” these same Americans have voted more and more reliably Republican.
Sunday’s Times had a fascinating and disturbing lead story about the pattern of government dependency around the country. A map showing areas of greatest reliance on public benefits corresponds with weird exactness to the map of red America: the South, Appalachia, and rural areas in general.
In addition, reliance on the safety net has more than doubled in the past four decades. During the same period, median incomes in America have stagnated or declined.
[The] persistent argument is that government programs do more harm than good and create a dependent class rather than alleviating hardship, because socio-economic differences are based on innate ability, not external circumstance. The white working-class has suffered a moral collapse caused in part by the sorting of society into rich and poor, with the traditional virtues surviving only among the former—not by an economic battering at the hands of globalization, technology, and corporate power. Inequality is a natural state, and people at the bottom of society should either resign themselves to their fate, or else revive themselves through a moral and spiritual reawakening (likely inspired by their betters) that will allow them to rise above the lousy hand dealt them by their brain power.
And the predictable left-right argument over causes and solutions doesn’t help. Is it disappearing jobs, or disappearing values? This isn’t an analytical choice I find very useful. Jobs and values are intertwined: when one starts to go, the other is likely to go with it, and the circle becomes truly vicious. A textile factory moves south of the border, and a town loses its mainstay of employment. Former textile workers scurry to find fast-food and retail positions. The move from blue-collar to service work is brutal, and over time some employees lose the will to stick it out in a hateful job. Their children do even worse. Soon enough there are two or three generations of one family on government help, and kids grow up without a model of the work ethic. When a technology plant opens in the area (with a fifth the number of jobs as the textile factory), few locals are remotely qualified to work there. It’s a dismally familiar story—but is it a story of jobs or values? The obvious answer is both, which is why no one’s five-point solutions or three-word slogan is convincing.
In the Times story, there’s a man named Ki Gulbranson from a small Minnesota town called Chisago, both barely clinging to the middle class. He tries to make ends meet selling apparel and refereeing kids’ soccer games. All around him, he sees growing dependence on government. No fan of government spending, he joined the Tea Party in 2010; at the same time, he benefits from the Earned Income Tax Credit, free school breakfasts for his children, and Medicare for his mother. “I don’t demand that the government does this for me,” he said. “I don’t feel like I need the government.” Yet he finds it hard to imagine surviving without the safety net. “I don’t think so,” he said. “No. I don’t know. Not the way we expect to live as Americans.”
Gulbranson’s moment of hesitation contains a certain explanatory power. He doesn’t want to say that he can’t live without government. In places like Chisago, the old ethic of self-reliance is real and fierce. But it’s disintegrating under the pressure of several bad economic decades. People in Park Slope, Brooklyn and the north shore of Chicago don’t see their neighbors going on disability when they could work. But the more Gulbranson sees it, the more he resents the government. Perhaps he resents it most of all because he knows he needs it. That’s a political conundrum for both parties, but even more, it’s an American problem.
Romney spoke about how he would fix the safety net for poor people “if it needs repair.”
Let me suggest one place to fix things: end child poverty.
Whatever the causes of poverty, when children grow up in desperate circumstances - circumstances that they had no role in creating - studies show that they will be more likely to drop out of high school, be unemployed, use drugs, have children out of wedlock and get ill.
In other words, they will be unproductive members of society and cost taxpayers huge amounts of money over the course of their lives.
We know that we have an education problem with the poor. Seventy-seven percent of our kids who entered high school graduated. Compare that with other rich countries: 90% in Switzerland, 91% in the UK, 93% in Finland and 97% in Germany. Studies show that dropouts are twice as likely to slip into poverty than high school graduates.
Children in extreme poverty do badly even when they are smart. A recent U.S. study tracked a group of eighth-graders in 1988. It found that students who did very well on a standardized test but were poor were less likely to get through college than their peers who tested poorly but were well-off.
On indicator after indicator, the U.S. compares badly with other rich nations on not only how impoverished it is but on the facilities and opportunities it is giving the poor. That’s why social mobility has stalled in America. Compared with other rich countries, poor Americans are more likely to stay poor. More than 40% of American men whose fathers had earnings in the bottom fifth end up in the same bracket. Britain, Denmark, Finland and Norway all perform much better.
The sad part is, these statistics are reversible. Compare child poverty rates in America and the UK. You’ll see that the UK’s rates were halved within a decade from the mid-1990s. The U.S. has actually risen since then.
There’s no secret sauce. Tony Blair’s Labour government simply made reducing child poverty a priority through various programs.
So, Romney: Yes, the media took your comments out of context. But you do need to be concerned about the very poor. We all do.
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