So ends “Billionaires’ Row and Welfare Lines,” Charles M. Blow’s excellent summary of poverty in the U.S. and its contrast to conditions for the nation’s billionaires. [Note: Since I did this piece early this morning, I learned that last night teacherken did a terrific diary on the same subject with the same title, absent the quotation marks, at Daily Kos. I commend teacherken’s diary, which gives ways the “budget woes” used to undercut the welfare state in the U.S. could easily be remedied.] The part that most stuck out to me is not the part about the billionaires’ ranks, but the moral degradation of a country that would allow its poorest children to suffer more precisely when its richest are doing marvelously. It speaks of a meanness in society. And to me, societies do not just happen. They are designed and created to be the way they are, within whatever resource context is applicable–i.e., the breadbasket of the U.S. obviously can produce more food per acre than most of Sub-Saharan Africa, so one has to account for local conditions in looking at absolute results (which is part of the justification for the global system of food justice which I advocate in A Winding Path to Workers’ Gardens/Un camino de bobina a jardines de trabajadores).
I recently pointed to Amia Srinivasan’s important piece in the New York Times on the subject of competing “morals”: Questions for Free-Market Moralists. This U.S. callousness to its poor can only be the result of a nation under a continuing spell of fear and hate. I am not talking about the minds of the billionaires being of “fear and hate,” although many of them may very well be. I cannot go in their minds; I do not want to go near their minds for that matter. I have never been one and have no desire to be. I am talking about the fear and hate of the rest of society “below” (interesting how we internalize this “ranking” system) the fabulously wealthy. “Empathy” is grounded out of the kindergartener’s kind little heart through an educational process, most of which does not take place in school. The stress of maintaining a middle class existence, or at least improving one’s own economic state, creates an empathy deficit in many if not most people, which, multiplied over millions of people, creates a society of callousness. And with neoliberalism, this empathy deficit is writ worldwide.
But is a “moral” analysis alone explanatory? I think not. One needs to go deeper. But before doing that, this is the part of Mr. Blow’s piece that most blew me away:
Nearly one in four American children live in poverty.
A report last year from the National Poverty Center estimated “that the number of households living on $2 or less in income per person per day in a given month increased from about 636,000 in 1996 to about 1.46 million households in early 2011, a percentage growth of 130 percent.”
And yet, the value of aid for those families is shrinking and under threat.
(Emphasis added.) Within the space of two inches of a column in the world’s flagship newspaper of political liberalism was summarized the assault on the welfare state. Mr. Blow’s marshaling of irrefutable empirical evidence was nearly as concise:
A report this week by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found, “Cash assistance benefits for the nation’s poorest families with children fell again in purchasing power in 2013 and are now at least 20 percent below their 1996 levels in 37 states, after adjusting for inflation.”
The number of Americans now enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is near record highs, and yet both houses of Congress have passed bills to cut funding to the program. The Senate measure would cut about $4 billion, while the House measure would cut roughly ten times as much, dropping millions of Americans from the program.
Next week, lawmakers will start trying to find a middle ground between the two versions of the farm bills that include these cuts.
Why this compulsion to cut the programs for the poor? Does it have something to do with the constant scapegoating of the poor in the U.S. mind, a poisoning of the well of human kindness that has been ongoing since at least the 1970s in my memory, a mindset that if “I let the poor get more, I may not be able to remain middle class, and I could be poor too”? Yes, I think so–but it is more than that too.
Prahhat Patnaik explains the reasons for this compulsion to cut the welfare state:
The reasons for the bourgeoisie’s opposition to the Welfare State, by which is meant here the entire panoply of measures including State intervention in demand management to maintain full employment (or near full employment), social security, free or near-free healthcare and education, and the use of taxation to restrict inequalities in income and wealth, are several. First, it militates against the basic ethics of the bourgeois system. Michal Kalecki had expressed this bourgeois ethics ironically as: “You shall earn your bread with the sweat of your brow, unless you happen to have private means!” But his irony was directed against the basic position, expressed in much bourgeois economic literature, that the distribution of rewards by the spontaneous working of the capitalist system is “fair”, in the sense that each is rewarded according to his/her contribution, from which it followed that any interference with this distribution of rewards was “unfair”. Hence, society’s accepting the responsibility for providing a basic minimum to everyone was contrary to the ethics of the bourgeois system and “unfair”.
Secondly, precisely for this reason, the acceptance of welfarism amounted to “no confidence” in the bourgeois system. If it got generally accepted that the working of the bourgeois system yielded results that were inhumane, i.e. caused hardships that had nothing to do with any delinquency on the part of the victims, then the social legitimacy of the bourgeois system got ipso facto undermined.
It is the third reason however that is germane here. Welfare State measures improve the bargaining strength of the proletariat and other segments of the working people. The maintenance of near-full employment conditions improves the bargaining strength of the trade unions; the provision of unemployment assistance likewise stiffens the resistance of the workers. The “sack” which is the weapon dangled by the “bosses” over the heads of the workers loses its effectiveness in an economy which is both close to full employment and has a system of reasonable unemployment allowances and other forms of social security.
The next time we read something like the following, well put by Mr. Blow, let’s remember “why” this is the case:
There is an inherent tension — and obscenity — in the wildly divergent fortunes of the rich and the poor in this country, especially among our children. The growing imbalance of both wealth and opportunity cannot be sustained. Something has to give.
This “tension — and obscenity” is inherent, but in ways one often overlooks in a society unaccustomed to hearing the socialist point of view. Which is “why” I want to make the socialist point of view known as much as I can. The lack of justice is programmed into the system and demands system change. The system is the “something” that needs “to give”–and it will not do so by doing the billionaires’ bidding.
They flood the political system with their money and generally control the political process with the ultimate aim of preventing the one thing that most needs to happen: the economy needs to be placed under the democratic control of the people. I have a vote, and I have a computer, so, being a deep democrat, I ask you to join with me and the many other democratic socialists in the U.S. who are not in a third party but work primarily within the Democratic Party to do the most good that we can. We can use our minds in “designing” something better, and we can try to use our political democracy-lite in “creating” it. (We will need to force changes to our political system to be more politically democratic in the process–things like filibusters, for instance, need to go.) Your choice. I have chosen for me only.
P.S. This is an excellent video on income disparity in the U.S. It does not correctly depict or reference “socialism” (which is part of why I do this website in my spare time), but it does a great job of showing the reality in the U.S. today: