The Real Culture Of Dependency

Supply-side (trickle-down) economics is the zombie lie of conservatives that won’t die despite being proved utterly wrong in every way

If we look back in time, we will encounter the infamous debtors’ prisons, dedicated to punishing those who could not, would not pay their debt for one reason or another. Until the mid 19th century, when bankruptcy law became available, this form of punishment was used to dissuade individuals from borrowing or spending what they couldn’t make good on. In the U.S., court rulings in 1970, 1971 and 1983 determined that prison sentences for debt other than criminal debt were unconstitutional if other criteria weren’t met. In addition to debtors’ prisons there were also poorhouses or workhouses in which poverty, considered a dishonorable circumstance, was treated with forced labor and even physical punishment if necessary.

We have obviously come a long way. Now the poor are allowed to live in whatever squalor their circumstances dictate, or simply live on the street. The war on poverty, started in the 1960s, has had marginal success if one looks back over the last half century. Poverty remains disturbingly high, and even those with low paying (minimum wage) jobs can still live in poverty — known as the working poor (more than half of whom make $9/hour or less and are above the of age 25). At least 50 million people live in poverty, not including the working poor, who receive government assistance sufficient to raise their income just above the poverty line — a quite minimal existence.

As the world’s wealthiest country, we have mixed feelings about all of this. Being a culture of contradictions, concern for those at the bottom of the economic pyramid depends on the circumstances of those who are not poor. When times are good, many are sympathetic to those in poverty. Oddly, when the economy is not doing well, sympathy is harder to find, and the poor are considered less deserving of help. This seems inexplicable given that during recessions there will invariably be more, not less, poverty as jobs are lost and not easily replaced.

So we end up with two sides to the issue of poverty — deserving poor versus dependency of poverty (the undeserving poor). It’s common knowledge that those further right of center politically are quite sure the latter is the more common variety, and that government assistance only makes the situation worse and more permanent. This largely arises from the firm belief that self-reliance is the driving force that lifts the poor into better circumstances, by which is meant rising into the working class or even middle class, and possibly achieving true wealth with sufficient ambition. The working poor are classified, along with the poor, as part of the “takers,” the infamous 47 percent who do not have sufficient income to have a tax liability (but do pay payroll taxes if employed).

This conservative theory is, at very best, perhaps 5 percent true. That is, there are some receiving assistance who have no desire to work, and willingly live on the few hundred dollars per month they are given. And some of the children from poor families will indeed become working or middle class members — also about 5 percent. But for the remaining 95 percent, the path out of poverty is strewn with obstacles that simply prevent those who want to better their lives from doing so. From poorly funded schools to a lack of role models to not knowing what to do and how to do it (such as job applications and interviews), self-reliance is not an answer.

Some of those who are not poor will try to help. My wife donates business-suitable clothing to an organization that helps women learn how to prepare a job application, how to dress for interviews and how to participate in the interview process. But the efforts of individuals cannot overcome the obstacles noted above. When it comes to education, job training and negotiating the details of getting ahead, it takes government-funded programs and workshops, and that’s assuming the individuals have received at least a high school diploma from a properly funded education system.

In reality, conservatives create a dependency on assistance by not generously funding everything from preschool to vocational and academic schooling while simultaneously stimulating economic growth so there are good-paying jobs with futures for these aspiring workers. Cutting taxes and spending does not do any of these things. The investments necessary to reduce poverty are not optional if the goal is to break the generational cycle of poverty that most cannot escape. This redistribution of wealth is precisely the role of government that is fundamental to responsible governance for the greater good.

The war on poverty was doomed to failure because early in its efforts, in the 1970s, tax codes and fiscal policies were changing as conservatives were able to implement aspects of their ideology. Not only did these efforts undermine the war on poverty, they slowly undermined the middle class over the following few decades. Supply-side (trickle-down) economics is, to quote Bill Maher, the zombie lie of conservatives that won’t die despite being proved utterly wrong in every way. The economic data is very clear in this regard.

Thus we have the inequity of 2014, with 90 percent sharing the 50 percent of the country’s wealth not held by 10 percent of the population, and conservatives still insisting that cutting taxes on the wealthy and cutting discretionary spending leads to greater economic prosperity. Yes, but only for the 10 percent. It doesn’t help the middle class and it certainly doesn’t reduce poverty. No one can actually avoid poverty with a part-time job that pays minimum wage or close to it. So, the poor are deserving of assistance, and their dependency on it is a direct result of supply-side economics. You don’t have to be a pragmatist to see this, but it certainly helps.

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