It started out as a seeming faux pas; now it’s a slogan for the right. Fox Business commentator Todd Wilemon last week made waves when he told a “Daily Show” correspondent a way to defeat the problems of poverty: “If you’re poor, stop being poor.”
While Wilemon was mocked on the left, conservatives lauded him. “‘Stop being poor’ has worked very well for the United States,” said one writer at National Review.
Can Americans just “stop being poor”? Why or why not? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the Red-Blue America columnists, debate the issue.
Snark all you like, but “stop being poor” isn’t the worst advice in the world. Not even close.
“Stop being poor” might be best understood as quintessentially American shorthand for refusing to accept your economic lot in life. Although people are born into poverty, and it’s never been easy to climb from the lowest rungs of the economic latter, it remains the case that nobody is condemned to remain poor in America. Not even now.
Maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that the liberal hipsters at “The Daily Show” and their perpetually aggrieved fellow travelers in the progressive blogosphere would take offense so easily. It’s no accident that the Great Recession and its aftermath have fostered a growing sense of fatalism that the Land of Opportunity isn’t what it used to be. By many measurements, the country is stagnating – and government is largely to blame.
Enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – food stamps, to you and me – has grown more than 70 percent during Barack Obama’s time in the Oval Office. Congress is bickering over whether and how to extend unemployment benefits, now at 99 weeks. The president this week announced he would change the nation’s workplace overtime rules without the consent of Congress. Last month, he unilaterally raised the minimum wage for federal contractors.
As it happens, President Obama’s budget proposal notes that 70 percent of federal spending this year will be in the form of direct payments to individuals. “These government transfers now account for 15 percent of GDP,” writes John Merline at Investor’s Business Daily. That’s a record high. And, no, that isn’t a good thing.
All of this suggests government is trying to usurp the private sector and the free market as drivers of prosperity and upward mobility. But it doesn’t work. It’s never worked in America.
“Food stamps did not make food plentiful and cheap,” notes National Review roving correspondent Kevin Williamson. “More farmland, better irrigation systems, Monsanto lab geeks, and GPS-enabled combines did that.”
In short, government regulation and redistribution won’t help people “stop being poor.” Innovation, education, entrepreneurship, creativity — the stuff that government can only encourage, but never mandate – is what the poor need to improve their lot in life.
Conservatives are so thoroughly terrified that government might do something, anything, that they rarely consider the problems on their own merits. Take my friend Ben: Ask him if it’s possible to “stop being poor” and he delivers . . . a tirade against food stamps.
Which is too bad, because there might be conservative, market-driven solutions to the growing – unavoidable – problem of inequality in this country. But conservatives would have to acknowledge the problem, and that might open the possibility of some bureaucrat or congressman or president somewhere doing something to fix it. Can’t have that.
One does not simply “stop being poor,” and to suggest otherwise is facile – a slogan for those born on third base thinking they hit a triple. It takes a combination of hard work, resources, and opportunity. We’ve got plenty of the first in this country, but the latter two elements are in diminishing supply.
The Associated Press reported this week that middle-class occupations in this country have slowly been disappearing since the recession of 1991, leaving more people to stuck in and scrapping for bottom-tier jobs at Walmart and McDonald’s. Many would like to “stop being poor” and climb that ladder – but the rungs have gone missing.
Instead, AP reports, “ inflation-adjusted income has declined 9 percent for the bottom 40 percent of households since 2007, even as incomes for the top 5 percent now slightly exceed where they were when the recession began late that year, according to the Census Bureau.”
That’s a long-term, systemic problem that won’t be solved with slogans or sermons. Unless we want to settle into a new Gilded Age economy, something needs to be done.
Food stamps didn’t make food cheap, Ben notes. But government did. Public universities created much of the research Monsanto uses to help crops proliferate; farm subsidies made meat and milk cheaper than they ever were for previous generations. Government might or might not be the solution in this present crisis. The command to “stop being poor” surely isn’t.
Ben Boychuk ([email protected]) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Joel Mathis ([email protected]) is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine. Website: www.facebook.com/benandjoel.