No One Wants Handouts

November 12, 2018

There seems to be an opinion among Republicans and Conservatives that Liberals and Democrats believe the answer to dangerously high inequality and continuing significant poverty in the US is just more ‘handouts’ (welfare). Every time I hear this characterization, my blood boils. I’d like to correct this misunderstanding.

I speak for myself, but I think most of those on my side of the political and social aisle would agree. What our underprivileged citizens need (and want) is good jobs with living wages. I firmly believe the vast majority of our poor would prefer to receive no handouts, would prefer to pay their own way.

I have faith in human nature. I believe only a tiny fraction of our needy want to exist off welfare.  For one thing, our social support budget is lower than that of many other developed nations. It’s almost impossible to “live off” welfare only. For another, it just doesn’t feel good to people to depend on charity. People want to earn their way.

Furthermore, Democrats don’t want to dole out precious government resources on welfare, resources which could go to infrastructure, education, basic research, and much more.

Those characterizations of Democrats, Liberals, and our poor are simply not true and are promoted for political advantage only.

Given that we all agree that handouts are not the answer, what is the problem? Here’s my list:

1-While unemployment is very low, wages remain very low. Recent wage increases fall far short of re-balancing the decades lost in stagnant wages (since the late 70s).

2-Furthermore, a huge skills deficit results in good jobs going unfilled and millions of Americans working at very low minimum wages. A major factor in this is the wage-educations costs gap which has widened dramatically across the last few decades.

3-Creating an economy where there is a healthy balance of good jobs and training to qualify workers for those jobs has not been the focus of this or previous US government administrations. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have presented an agenda to resolve this huge problem. Trump’s government seems determined to focus only on “manufacturing.” Some focus on manufacturing is fair, but there is a much broader set of skills needed, especially in the service and knowledge economy for which the US wage scale is best suited.

My questions to my Conservative friends are these:

  1. Since we all agree handouts are not the best answer, why aren’t you offering policy and solutions designed to create those jobs? This would best involve collaboration between local businesses, local educational institutions, and local governments. The federal government is not the best source of solutions and plans, but can be a valuable enhancer with a variety of incentives to boost promising local initiatives. Since nothing like this has been undertaken to date, it is likely to take years to produce results–but there’s no better time to get started.
  2. What do you propose we do across the years of development toward jobs and skills balance? Isn’t there a temporary (and hopefully diminishing) need for welfare to prevent people starving while we work toward a better economy with opportunity for “shared prosperity”? Do we have to sacrifice a generation?

My guess as to the answers to these questions (why critics of welfare do nothing to solve the jobs problem):

-Some believe such an economic and societal improvement is hopelessly utopian (just a waste of time and money to try)–e.g., let the free market deal with jobs and wages. They believe it is dangerous to try to influence the pure market. They fear unintended negative consequences. But how well has the ‘market’ worked across the last few decades in creating shared prosperity?

-Many Conservatives believe in total self determination. They believe there is ample opportunity for our underprivileged to “make it” if they will just get off the sofa and find the training and the jobs. They believe workers should get themselves trained as plumbers or electricians if they are not able to handle computer science.

-And, I hate to say it, but maybe some just don’t care about working toward shared prosperity. But, how can one not care about our inequality, which is back to the robber baron era level?

I have argued for years now that our very high level of inequality is the biggest problem for our United States. It’s not immigrants at the border, not Iran or North Korea, not an underfunded military, not the economic threats from foreign countries. These are among our many problems, but inequality is the worst problem. This is what results in poverty, homelessness, health and longevity problems, despair and much more, including death.

To my surprise, even Tucker Carlson (for whom I have little patience) is quoted as agreeing that inequality is our greatest problem.

A large unhappy, under-skilled segment of our voting public went for a demagogue populist who promised to fix their pain from low wages and poor jobs. If he really wants to put America First, then he should focus and thoroughly address America’s First Problem.