One of the most pervasive myths about poverty in right wing circles is that people who are unable to lift themselves out of it aren’t working hard enough. Some of the most militant advocates of this philosophy are those who come from poor backgrounds themselves, and insist that anyone can do what they did. The ‘American Dream’ is built around this myth, and it has created a society of such astonishing wealth inequality that CEOs now make almost 300 times what the average worker does, and 1% of the population owns more than the bottom 90% combined.
Coming from relative comfort and having a solid support network around me, I still find surviving American style capitalism difficult. With rising health care, food, education, and housing costs, I have come to accept a life without much stability or ability to plan properly for the future. I make investments and save religiously, but relatively normal events (like car maintenance, having a child or going to the dentist) can have an enormous impact on my family’s day to day life. For those born into poverty with little education, family support or opportunity, I can’t imagine how anyone survives. It is no wonder household debt in America is spiraling out of control, and may well precipitate another catastrophic financial crash should the economy begin to contract.
One of the reasons why I consider myself a liberal/Democrat is that I believe in the power of government to regulate market capitalism and ensure a fairer outcome for the majority of people, rather than the few. Part of this is providing an adequate safety net for the very poor who fall on hard times or are stuck in situations beyond their control. Having somewhere safe to sleep and something to eat is a basic human right, and I don’t want to be part of a society that actively makes life harder for those already struggling.
No matter how bad the inequality gets, or how desperate the poor become to feed and house themselves, conservatives seem to be offering the same solutions that have created the systemic problems in the first place. Tax cuts for the wealthy and slashing welfare benefits have done exactly what one would expect them to do: make rich people richer, and poor people poorer. Republicans have offered no new solutions to reverse poverty in America other than promoting “market solutions” to incentivize the poor to work harder and stop being lazy. Take for example, Ben Carson’s recent announcement that the Housing and Urban Development department would be unveiling a plan that would effectively triple the rent for Americans on housing assistance. From the Huff Post:
Carson’s plan, proposed in the form of congressional legislation, would raise from 30 percent to 35 percent the amount of their income that Americans on housing assistance pay toward their housing. It would also require that the money be made by at least 15 hours of work at the federal minimum wage level.
That plan would cause rent payments for low-income families to rise from about an amount not exceeding $50 per month to $150 per month, The Washington Post reported.
“The system we currently use to calculate a family’s rental assistance is broken and holds back the very people we’re supposed to be helping,” Carson said in a statement. “HUD-assisted households are now required to surrender a long list of personal information, and any new income they earn is ‘taxed’ every year in the form of a rent increase. Today, we begin a necessary conversation about how we can provide meaningful, dignified assistance to those we serve without hurting them at the same time.”
A release from HUD sought to emphasize that the increases will not apply to households “comprised of elderly persons or persons with disabilities.”
Falling in line with his “social housing is too cushy” philosophy, Carson appears to believe that the way to help poor people is to make their lives more miserable to incentivize them to work harder. This philosophy may have worked well for Carson — an exceptionally gifted surgeon with an extreme work ethic — but for the majority of the population, it simply makes things much, much worse. This isn’t because they don’t work hard enough or don’t believe in themselves, it is because most people (myself included) have limited mental energy when it comes to working, raising a family, staying healthy, and looking after others who need help.
Studies have shown that being poor is not only more expensive, but more mentally taxing given the extraordinary financial calculations people have to do in order to survive. Those in poverty report significantly more stress, anxiety and chronic pain than those with high paying jobs, making the likelihood of pulling yourself out of poverty all the more difficult. Exceptional people are, as the word indicates, the exception. Telling people to work themselves out of poverty and become famous brain surgeons might be good for selling books, but it isn’t good government policy and it will have disastrous results. The Bush administration cut the HUD’s budget by $1.8 billion, and focused its efforts on increasing private home ownership. The budget for public housing for low-income families was slashed year after year, with severe effects on the most vulnerable people in society. Housing projects were seriously neglected and left desperate for money at a time when Bush’s economic policies were wreaking even more havoc on the poor. Carson is merely repackaging the same failed policies with hokey tales about aspiration and using the government to “get people back to work”.
More than anything, this is proof that modern conservatism has moved beyond a bankruptcy of ideas to something more sinister. There is now only cruelty and an indifference to human suffering, enacted through economic policies that we know won’t work, and for the benefit of the ultra wealthy. Ben Carson saw fit to use tax payer’s money to create a lavish office environment for himself, probably because it would make his job more productive and happy. The people he serves though, are apparently not deserving of even the smallest luxury — like an affordable place to live or a hope of a better future. While Carson was successful as a neurosurgeon, this will unfortunately be his legacy — tearing down the ladder he once climbed to get a head start in life.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.