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August 1996
Volume 14, Number 8

Rethinking the Poor
Michael Levin

A premise many conservatives share with liberals is that government largess harms its beneficiaries. Welfare supposedly creates dependence and "traps" its recipients in poverty. Much as the poor want to support themselves and their families, they are lured into sloth by Aid to Families with Dependent Children and other programs. Similar criticisms are brought against affirmative action, which supposedly labels its beneficiaries as inferior.

People utter this bosh, I suspect, mostly because they hope to make headway against Great Society policies by sounding concerned for the less fortunate. As Dorothy Parker said, any stigma to beat a dogma. But the fact remains that giving someone something for nothing does him a favor from his point of view.

Take welfare. It is hard to estimate the total level of benefits for the poor, since there are hundreds of overlapping federal, state, and municipal programs. But rough estimates show they exceed the poverty line in every state by a factor of two.

In New York, according to Change-NY, a typical welfare client can receive $32,500 in benefits after taxes. Meanwhile, a working police officer in the same state makes $27,000. Benefits in nine states effectively exceed the national average starting salary for teachers.

And this doesn't include the ample scope for fraud--a mom can keep her live-in boyfriend by hiding him from the caseworker, and supplement her income with drug trafficking, prostitution, and other odd jobs off the books. All extra income is tax free for these "victims" of welfare.

The old saw about there being no free lunch is a bit misleading. Patrons of bars serving "free" hors d'oeuvres do indeed end up paying for the food in higher drink prices. But a freeloader who scarfs down the appetizers, gets the house to give him booze, and convinces the other customers to offset the house's losses really does eat for nothing.

Every lunch is paid for--but if you know what you're doing, the guy who pays for your lunch doesn't have to be you. And the welfare population seems to know what it's doing; contrary to another myth, it is far from "powerless." Battalions of editorial writers, television commentators, religious officials, and judges stand ready to denounce any suggestion that welfare be cut, and to reveal a Constitutional and moral right to entitlements. With oppression like that, who needs liberators?

Enter the conservative, to deplore the effects of handouts on character. He is certainly right that welfare encourages indolence and fraud, traits baneful to society at large. But how do they harm the welfare mother herself? They would be self-destructive if they jeopardized her survival, but her entitlements make good character unnecessary for survival. Since mom will be cared for whether or not she finds a job or a man--indeed, whether or not she tries to find either--her sense of responsibility won't be missed. A world-owes-me-a-living attitude is costless if the world decides it does owe you a living.

For some people, good character in itself is no more useful than good horsemanship. The ability to handle horses was once important and widely admired because horses were needed for transportation, but the automobile has changed all that. Willingness to work was important when you had to work to live, but that has been changed by the welfare state.

Underclass fecklessness if often called "dysfunctional," but it is by no means that. Traits are functional, or adaptive, when they help organisms reproduce--which means that for almost any trait there is some environment in which it is adaptive. Seemingly "losing" traits like weakness, when they evoke solicitude in others, may work better than seemingly "winning" traits like fortitude.

The wide-eyed stare of a kitten that prompts food from her owner is a successful survival mechanism. Having illegitimate children, throwing yourself on the mercy of society, and being described as "vulnerable" in the media has proven to be an even more successful one, inspiring laws that force other people to give support. The birthrate of the welfare cohort exceeds that of the general population.

Affirmative action also gets a victimological spin from its opponents. Conservatives and lapsed liberals say it harms recipients to give them jobs, contracts, admissions, and scholarships they could not get under merit-based competition.

I sometimes ask the students whose enrollment and jobs are do to such preferences if they feel diminished by quotas. Responses have varied from "Look, I'm happy to get what I can get" to anger at the suggestion that preferences are not their due for centuries of racism. Not surprisingly, opinion polls indicate that people receiving preferences strongly favor them. The only evidence I know of that quotas stigmatize their recipients is the convention that they ought to, which may well be so, but is certainly news to quota beneficiaries.

Conservatives wax similarly indignant about the athlete "taken advantage of" by a college that recruits him but fails to make sure he passes his courses (as if that were the college's responsibility instead of his).

Think of it: a school welcomes an 18-year-old it would never admit on the basis of his grades, charges him nothing while making intellectually far abler students pay $100,000, and gives him a chance to make something of himself. Most fathers would hop through minefields to get their children privileges like this. And yet, when after four years of pampering, this fellow fails to graduate, the school is castigated for exploiting him.

Conservatives are keen to represent themselves as champions of the poor because they are constantly accused of lacking compassion. See, say conservatives, we're the real friends of the poor. We are the ones who take their interests to heart, have faith in them, believe in their fundamentally good character that hard work will bring out. There's even a psychobabble name for this attempt to beat liberals at their own game: tough love.

The trouble with criticizing liberalism that way is that it keeps the welfare mother, the underqualified quota beneficiary, and other official victims at moral center stage. It assumes, as does liberalism, that the basic question is how best to help these parties, not whether they in fact deserve any special help at all. Decrying liberal policies because they hurt their intended beneficiaries reinforces the idea that the happiness of the poor is all that counts. The happiness of everyone else is irrelevant.

This fashionable but phony love for the poor--displayed most brazenly in the writings of Marvin Olasky and Ariana Huffington--is a reason why the Republican Congress has gotten nowhere with welfare reform. Few propose to end the plunder. Instead, we get Jack Kemp-style reforms: allow welfare "victims" to amass more savings without threatening their handouts, shift payments from the federal level to the state level, or change the benefits formula. Whatever you do, it's got to appear compassionate--more compassionate than the present system.

So long as conservatives maintain this spurious posture of care and concern, they will be evading the crucial political point: the only good reform is one that plugs the welfare pipeline. Yet that is the one reform precluded by the "welfare victim" morality play.

No matter how you slice it, cutting off people's income stream, even when its ill-gotten, is not the action of a sweetie pie. The "poor" and "victimized" will always object. Nonetheless, as a matter of justice and economic rationality, it's got to be done. The poor must have the mantle of victimhood lifted from them. It's time to consider the plight of wealth producers who are being taxed to pay for redistribution, and those who live in fear of the privatized welfare of crime.

An expression now achieving currency is "fashion victim," used ironically of people who make themselves miserable trying to stay hip. Tama Janowicz's novel about such individuals has the equally sly title Slaves of New York. The point is that privileges can spoil a person, even make him resentful of not having more, but they cannot enslave or victimize him.

The correct response to the dilemma of not knowing which pair of designer jeans to wear is, "we should all have such problems." The plight of welfare victims who need not work because the taxpayer supports them invites a less gracious response.


Michael Levin teaches Philosophy at the City College of New York


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