Compulsion vs. Opportunity in the War on Poverty

Writing at the Washington PostMichael R. Strain of the American Enterprise Institute saw an opportunity for productive dialogue in President Obama’s Georgetown University poverty panel last week. “When conservatives listen to Obama, we can learn a lot. So can he,” is the headline thesis of the article.

I don’t mean to dismiss the interesting thoughts in Strain’s article out of hand, but that would be the same Georgetown University appearance at which Obama blamed Fox News for the public’s negative perception of the welfare state and its clients, who Obama thinks his ideological opponents have unfairly portrayed as “sponges, leeches, don’t want to work, are lazy, are undeserving.”

“I have to say that if you watch FOX News on a regular basis, it is a constant menu,” groused the President. “They will find folks who make me mad. I don’t even know where they find them. ‘I don’t want to work, I just want a free Obamaphone or whatever.’ And that becomes an entire narrative that gets worked up and very rarely do you hear an interview of a waitress, which is much more typical who is raising a couple of kids and doing everything right but still can’t pay the bills.”

Obama went on to suggest that the key to defeating poverty was to “change how John Boehner and Mitch McConnell think,” continuing his unbroken seven-year streak of taking no responsibility whatsoever for anything that happens on his watch.

There’s so much stupidity and bad faith bound up in those comments that Strain’s effort to find common ground and suss out provocative ideas from Obama’s rhetoric feels like one of those pushing-a-boulder-uphill-for-eternity punishments mythology imposes on the damned. Sisyphus’ legendary boulder breaks into pebbles before he can ever get it to the hilltop. The emissions of President Obama, and most other liberals, on welfare-state issues dissolve into clouds of insincerity before anything useful can be extracted from them.

They’re not interested in taking a critical look at where poverty stands in America, questioning the morality of tax-and-spend welfare-state liberalism, asking tough questions about why all that waste and fraud never goes away despite constant promises to address them, or seriously debating the essential value of work and opportunity. When they talk about jobs and opportunity, they don’t really mean it, at least not in the sense a non-liberal would understand those terms. Liberals think jobs are a benefit the State distributes to the deserving, and opportunity is a resource it redistributes. They’ll never travel far down any intellectual path that might lead to the conclusion that the entire Food Stamp Nation concept is both ineffective – indeed, counter-productive – and immoral.

Obama certainly knows how to use the language of economic liberty and capitalism for collectivist ends. He knows he has to talk about economic growth and pay lip service to the wonderful potential of hard-working and entrepreneurial Americans in the private sector… even as he grinds them beneath his heel. Here is how Strain describes the President’s contribution to a panel discussion that was “a hit, with much wisdom from both sides of the political divide”:

The president, stipulating that “the best antipoverty program is a job,” argued that work “confers not just income, but structure and dignity and a sense of connection to community.” The president is right to follow the word job with the word dignity.

Nothing Barack Obama does – nothing – suggests he actually believes that. He just knows he has to say it. Strain goes on to offer some of his own interesting thoughts about how society is too quick to dismiss “dead-end jobs,” but then he ruins it by saying “our national character would improve if we followed the President’s lead and thought of a job as providing dignity along with a paycheck.”

Obama offers no such lead. He dumps a bit of empty rhetoric about jobs and dignity from time to time… and then carps and whines about how the lovely Food Stamp Nation he’s pumped up to several times its original size, during what he wants us to view as an economic recovery, is unfairly besmirched by his nemeses at Fox News. The one part of televised media that isn’t 100 percent in lockstep with Obama’s agenda is supposedly responsible for every bad thought Americans entertain about the War on Poverty.

Look at Obama’s latest Fox News whine again. That network is not the reason the “Obamaphone Lady” became somewhat notorious during the 2012 campaign. Conservatives are not the reason she’s called that, either – she used the term “Obamaphone” herself, and indicated (evidently accurately, based on subsequent reporting) that many other dependents of the cell phone welfare program refer to it by that name, even though it predates Obama’s presidency. Actually, at the time that video clip went viral, most taxpayers had no idea they were funding a program to distribute free cell phones to welfare clients. Obama is effectively complaining about how the image of the welfare state suffers when the people who pay for it learn what it’s doing.

Criticism of the welfare state isn’t based on anecdotal stories like the Obamaphone Lady’s angry rant against politicians who might take away her benefits. It’s based on mountains of statistical evidence about growing dependency, lavish benefits, insane levels of waste and abuse, and the sadly indisputable fact that trillions spent over decades in the War on Poverty have had virtually no lasting effect on the poverty rate. Obama bitterly opposes the few reforms that actually moved people from dependency into productive working life, such as the work requirements from the Clinton era.

The problem with this discussion is that Left and Right, collectivists and libertarians, can’t agree on what even the most elementary terms mean. Liberals have deliberately twisted the language of work, opportunity, and freedom beyond recognition. Writing about Obama’s Georgetown University remarks, Thomas Sowell zeroes in on one of the more nauseating rhetorical habits of Big Government acolytes:

One of the ways of fighting poverty, [Obama] proposed, was to “ask from society’s lottery winners” that they make a “modest investment” in government programs to help the poor.

Since free speech is guaranteed to everyone by the First Amendment to the Constitution, there is nothing to prevent anybody from asking anything from anybody else. But the federal government does not just “ask” for money. It takes the money it wants in taxes, usually before the people who have earned it see their paychecks.

Despite pious rhetoric on the left about “asking” the more fortunate for more money, the government does not “ask” anything. It seizes what it wants by force. If you don’t pay up, it can take not only your paycheck, it can seize your bank account, put a lien on your home and/or put you in federal prison.

So please don’t insult our intelligence by talking piously about “asking.”

Sowell also remarks on the equally odious habit of describing Big Government spending as “investment,” another theft of language intended to describe voluntary action for collectivist ends. Also, dismissing successful people as “society’s lottery winners” obscenely under-values their work and sacrifice, while challenging the legitimacy of their claim to their own property.

Perhaps there are some Democrats willing to break away from the Party’s calcified statist ideology. While debating the Trade Promotion Authority bill today, Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) spoke at length about how the government doesn’t create jobs, but is instead responsible for “creating a nurturing environment for job creation,” which would include access to capital and money, “a world-class work force, public safety, a clean environment, public health, a tax code that’s fair and reasonable,” and “regulations that embody common sense.”

The list of things government “must do” to “nurture” job creation can grow so long that the government ends up controlling everything in the name of liberty, particularly when the list includes items as open-ended as providing a “world-class work force.” How much responsibility are the people who actually comprise the workforce supposed to shoulder for making it world-class? What does “fair” mean with reference to the tax code? I can think of some diametrically opposed definitions proposed by liberals and conservatives.

But if we can get those terms nailed down, and establish that Democrats like Carper want to go further than offering the usual insincere rhetorical gesture to free-market power, maybe we can begin a real exchange of ideas about poverty. (At the risk of sounding excessively cynical, every statist Democrat will claim they don’t believe government creates jobs, when there’s a camera pointed at them.) Carper spoke at length about the need for infrastructure spending. Is he ready to follow that thought where it leads, and ask tough questions of his Party about the fate of Obama’s wasted trillion-dollar stimulus? Is he ready to pull money out of the moribund welfare state and use it to pay for the job-creating infrastructure that will help the poor find dignity and self-sufficiency through work? Is he ready to call on his party to abandon its bizarre global warming religion and unleash the engines of capitalism to increase our general prosperity?

Let me propose an idea for both sides in the poverty debate to consider: the true significance of work is not that it brings “dignity” to the poor, because they don’t consider themselves undignified now, and the welfare state goes to great lengths to reinforce that sense of entitlement instead of humbly accepting temporary charity. Work provides two concrete benefits more important than dignity: value and purpose.

Society needs as many people as possible to generate value through their efforts – the work product of an employed individual contributes to society’s wealth, not just the paycheck he receives, and the commerce he engages in by spending his money. And every human being is hungry for purpose, something productive to do with his time, a constructive way to fulfill his ambitions and improve the lives of his loved ones. Absent constructive purpose, some people will tend to find destructive ones… or languish in bitter hopelessness. Given purpose, dignity blossoms like a strong tree growing from fertile earth. A wealthy society should be richer in purpose than ours currently is.


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