The poor you have with you always. Therefore government should assume no responsibility for them? Some think so.
Attitudes toward the poor are emblematic of the difference between conservatives and liberals. The conservative belief is that the poor, like everyone else, are responsible for their own wellbeing. The government should assume zero responsibility; rather, the private charity of the wealthy should relieve the worst suffering of the poor. This belief, common among conservatives today, is directly descended from England’s Edmund Burke in the 18th century, who was greatly reluctant to do anything at all about the gross inequality of his day, fearing that any change would have negative consequences.
However, the rich in the US simply do not contribute significantly to help the poor. When the rich give to charity, it is far more likely to be to support the arts, a hospital, a museum, a private university, or another place that is unimportant to the poor. And more than one person has made the point that many times the great wealth they are so generous with came from corporate profits they gained by cheating many thousands of workers.
Attitudes toward treatment of the poor
is emblematic of the difference
between conservatives and liberals.
The liberal belief is that it is the legal structure of the US economy today, constantly manipulated by the rich, that has created excessive poverty, and government has a moral duty to relieve this needless suffering.
Much of the dispute between these two approaches depends on definitions and on the actual facts of poverty. I have never heard of a liberal who approved of welfare so generous that recipients don’t want to work, but that’s what many conservatives claim. Whatever level of support causes a person to deliberately avoid finding work, we come nowhere near it in the US. Our temporary support is much more stingy than, for example, the Scandinavian countries, yet the Scandinavians on assistance are eager to get back to work. But maybe the explanation is that Scandinavians are not routinely cheated when they work.
The low wages of the poorest workers in the US keep them in poverty. These are not rag pickers, but people who go to work every weekday, yet cannot raise themselves from poverty. Nor are we short of cash. We’re the richest country ever.
Not only does their hourly wage keep them in poverty, but many of the richest corporations boost profits by allowing workers only part-time hours, thus avoiding having to provide benefits. This creates havoc with workers’ lives. They have also claimed that their full time workers are “contract workers”, that is, self-employed independent agents for which the corporation has no responsibility. All those guys in brown shorts, driving brown trucks? They don’t work for UPS; they have to supply their own bennies. In short, many US corporations can be relied on to boost profit for their rich owners on the backs of those they pay the least.
Much poverty in the US
results from the low wages
of the poorest workers.
The liberal position is that this treatment of low wage workers is inexcusable, that we all have a duty to avoid undue suffering of the poor by paying them properly, and particularly by not cheating them.
Conservatives have argued against updating the national minimum wage, now worth half what it once was. A number have claimed that there should be no minimum wage law at all, or that wages should be determined exclusively by employers. Years ago, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain managed to exempt food workers from the minimum wage law, which froze the minimum wage for them at $2.13 per hour, where it remains today.
The problem here is that many employers can be counted on to pay the lowest wage they can get away with. This includes huge, rich corporations like Walmart and McDonald’s, which pay so poorly that many of their employees qualify for government welfare. Workers take welfare—our tax dollars—to make up for the wages they don’t get. The wages they don’t get—our tax dollars—land in the bank accounts of rich owners. This is as sure a definition of corporate welfare as you’ll find. Likewise, Herman Cain’s $2.13 per hour pay forces many workers to depend entirely on tips in jobs where their official pay is a pittance, and tips are never enough to live on.
The surest way to eliminate
a large percentage of poverty in the US
is to require a true Living Wage.
Anyone who doesn’t understand the effects of such stinginess on workers should read Nickel and Dimed, and subsequent writings, by Barbara Ehrenreich, which eloquently spells out the discouraging difficulty of supporting oneself with the lousy pay that is all too common. The most telling fact is that full time minimum wage work—if you can find it—will not pay the rent for a one-bedroom apartment in any American city.
It seems very clear: the simplest and surest way to eliminate a large percentage of poverty in the US is to require, not the $12 to $15 per hour minimum wage currently being promoted, which barely makes up for inflation, but a true Living Wage, similar to what Australia and a number of other advanced countries have had for a century. Not only would this eliminate large swaths of people from the rolls of poverty at a stroke, thus saving on welfare payments and increasing tax revenue, but most of the added income would be spent on consumer goods, thus boosting employment.
Why don’t we have Living Wage already? One reason is the national failure to recognize the value of all work. All jobs fulfill a crucial role in the smooth functioning of the economy. This is at least as important a reason as misplaced faith in the wisdom of the unregulated “free market”, which is indifferent to the suffering of workers who cannot earn a sufficient wage by working full time in the richest nation the world has ever known.