Finding a Middle Ground

August 1, 2014
Finding a Middle Ground
In my previous post (On the Subject of Inequality: What Separates Us), I stated my belief that most people want to work. I suggested that some on the Conservative Right act or propose policies such as to suggest they believe most people don’t want to work, and that we’re simply coddling them with tools like unemployment insurance. Instead, they argue, we should help only those who are working, as with the earned income credit. People have to go out and get a job and owe income tax to get this kind of help. Indeed, surveys show that Americans have a stronger penchant to view the poor as lazy than do European  (Alesina and Glaeser).
But, most conservatives and most liberals will agree that the US (and the world) is made up of some of both. Maybe I should have more strongly emphasized my view that “most” are responsible out there, because I also acknowledge some are not. Certainly some will take advantage of the system, if possible.
If people were really all of one type or the other, wouldn’t life be simple? Our rhetoric, both from the Left and from the Right, especially during the Obama administration, seems to portray such sharply contrasted views of human nature.  From the Left, we accuse the Right of being uncaring, selfish. From the Right, we are accused of being soft, wasteful, and perpetuating laziness.
David Brooks offered some relevant observations in an Op-Ed of July 31, 2014 in which he reminds us that some people have strong character and some don’t. For these purposes, he defines character as composed of drive, determination, self control, and ability to focus and stay on task. Researchers find these qualities are more important than intelligence or other qualities, as determinants of success.  For those who don’t have it, some can achieve it, with a combination of practice (developing habits); provision of real opportunity (motivation); mentoring; and clear standards for achievement.  I see great examples of the impact of such practices in three local organizations I am familiar with here in the Bay Area (East Palo Alto College Prep, East Bay College Fund, and Live in Peace). I’m sure there are others, but unfortunately far fewer than we need.
So, what we need is neither the extremist solutions argued by Left nor those of the Right. What we need is some hard work in the middle ground, where we attempt to engage those who are falling short, with tools like those Brooks describes. The sad reality we on the Left must face is that after some period of investment in those who do not wish to take advantage of opportunity, we must cut back the support. But we must not give up too soon. We must weigh the cost of such support against the long term cost to the system for those failing to get onto their own feet–medical bills, crime prevention and apprehension, incarceration and other costs.
The US spends far less on social support as a percentage of GDP than does Europe (Alesina and Glaeser, 2004). And just consider the costs of not getting these citizens on their feet. Some end up in prison—that costs an average of $32,000 per year per inmate, according to the Center on Sentencing and Corrections. Others end up frequenting emergency rooms or drug rehabilitation centers, with attendant costs to the economy.  Beyond our moral obligations, there is also fiscal responsibility (cost savings to the government) in reduced future (and often long term) costs of poverty.

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