David Coates

Paul Ryan as the Prince of Paupers

Given the scale and depth of poverty in the United States, it is not surprising that periodically debates about it should surface in Washington DC. What is more surprising is that the issue of poverty is not permanently center-stage.

It did return there briefly last week because of the publication of a report on the war on poverty by a House Budget Committee chaired by Paul Ryan, the Republican Party’s vice-presidential candidate in 2012 and one of the Party’s possible presidential contenders in 2016.

The report was ostensibly an even-handed review of the effectiveness of the whole swathe of federal programs affecting the American poor. It was in reality a thinly disguised critique of many of them, reinforcing the clear view on the American Right that the bulk of welfare programs created to further the war on poverty have helped merely to perpetuate that poverty – the old Reagan adage that “in the war on poverty, poverty won.”

The report, and the reaction to it, would be a purely internal American affair, not of great interest to a European audience, were it not for the insights that the poverty conversation offers us into the general character of contemporary U.S. conservatism: three insights at least.

1. One is the remarkable degree of hardness and lack of compassion now so evident on the American Right.  Insensitive and inaccurate stereotypes abound in the Republican Party litany of welfare ills. People stay on welfare because welfare pays so well. Long-term unemployment insurance only discourages people from seeking paid employment.  The inner-cities are ghettos of unemployment only because of the proliferation there of work-shy cultures, particularly among young men who have never experienced the discipline of work. Welfare encourages drug use and under-age pregnancies.  Or, as one Ayn Rand-inspired libertarian put it on The Huffington Post in response to a call for a more sustained set of anti-poverty policies, “I asked Atlas what we should do about the plight of the American poor. Atlas shrugged.” Shrugged, when in reality welfare pays so little and most of the American poor remain desperate for work, and for work that pays well.

2. A second is the entrenched enthusiasm among even the thinking wing of the Republican Party for the rolling back of the welfare state, even when conceding the complexity of the processes to which welfare spending is a response.  The Ryan Report admitted that “there are many reasons why poverty persists to such a wide extent today,” and even gave major responsibility to “changes in family structure, changes in labor-market opportunities, and changes in broader demographics.” It also conceded that “not every program is counterproductive or unnecessary; indeed some are very important.”  And yet the overall thrust of the Report was otherwise: “the trends are not encouraging. Federal programs are not only failing to address the problem. They are also in some significant respects making it worse.”  Worse, because as means-tested benefits are replaced by low-paid employment “poor families face very high implicit marginal tax rates.” Worse, because as Paul Ryan put it later to CEPC – the annual gathering of conservative activists – receiving welfare erodes human dignity: giving a child a subsidized school lunch fills the belly but empties the soul!

3. A third is the Republican Party’s insistence on the over-riding role of personal responsibility and individual agency in the creation of poverty. In the contemporary American conservative discourse on poverty, poverty is explained almost exclusively as the product of poor personal decisions: decisions taken when young not to marry, not to stay in school, not to stay in the labor force, not to avoid pregnancy. Poverty is thereby understood as essentially a voluntary process, solved by character-reform and individual escape. There is no recognition in that contemporary conservative conversation of the impact of large-scale involuntary unemployment across the economy as a whole, and of poverty-level wages in the US service sector. Nor is there any recognition that the current scale of involuntary unemployment and poverty-level wages is, in part at least, the product of Republican opposition to stimulus programs and the raising of the minimum wage. Poverty in America and elsewhere is the product of both structure and agency. Anti-poverty policies need to act on both. Right now, Republican anti-poverty policy puts the onus of responsibility firmly on agents while the Party’s general economic policy significantly erodes the options that those agents face.

Much of this is purely of American concern, underscoring what a hard and unforgiving society Republicans will help consolidate here if the Democrats lose the Senate in 2014 and the White House two years later. But there is also a general truth in play. For far too long, the Democratic Left on both sides of the Atlantic bought into the tax-cutting deregulatory economic growth strategy first championed by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The scale and depth of contemporary poverty is one major legacy of that failed strategy. A culture dismissive of the poor is its other legacy. Which means, among other things, that unless the Left can persuade American and European electorates of the virtues of a more compassionate route to economic growth, the Paul Ryan’s of this world will eventually carry the day – and tip us into a world in which the gap between the privileged and the poor becomes so wide as to potentially threaten the stability of democracy itself.

Published on the SPERI Comment blog site, April 15 2014

David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

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