Friday, April 20, 2012

Poverty as Liberty

A major part of the continuing Republican con is the notion that massive differences in economic outcomes among American families are perfectly acceptable – given the undisputable “fact” that Americans enjoy unprecedented economic opportunities to better themselves. In this exceptionalist vision of American economic success, heavily popularized in the early 19th century by French historian Alexis de Toqueville and by American writer Horatio Alger, America’s position in the world as an unusually mobile, classless society was unchallenged. In this view, any American who demonstrated sufficient pluck, or true grit could rise from poverty.

Sadly, this powerful ideological template is completely false as empirical data can readily attest (more on this in a moment). I say “sadly” because it continues to hold many citizens in thrall more than 150 years later…and continues to be a prominent rallying cry for Tea Party Republicans today. But, it is the corollary of this misguided exceptionalist theory that is so troubling. Stated bluntly, if it is indeed the case that the social order of the United States provides uniquely “high” probabilities of rising from poverty to a position of great wealth, then does one explain the substantial amount of poverty that exists today?

Among Republicans, reluctant as they are to properly acknowledge any of the destructive side effects of exclusively free market economies, the only explanation for all this poverty is that many of these folks are really “the underserving poor.” That is..they are morally flawed and lack the true grit, and willingness to exert effort that was implied by Horatio Alger over a century and a half ago. This view is implicit in Mitt Romney’s statement’s regarding stay-at-home mothers. His suggestion is that there is great dignity in work done by women as stay at home moms but only if they have the financial resources to do so. A poor woman who wishes to do so of course is morally flawed. There is no dignity of work in child rearing by one who is poor. That is why as Governor in my home state he wanted to force all mothers receiving any government assistance to get out of the house and into the workforce – or lose their benefits.

These harsh, uncompassionate views of the poor are a clear corollary of the exceptionalist vision. But there is a major empirical problem here. First, as Tim Noah points out (New Republic, March 1, 2012), this vision was advanced when 41 percent of farmer’s sons advanced to white collar jobs between 1880 and 1990, compared with only 32 percent between 1950 and 1973. Intergenerational mobility has been dropping. But surely, the United States exceeds all other nations in our economic mobility?? The PEW Economic Mobility Project demonstrates ( ) that in 2006, the U.S. had far less relative intergenerational mobility than countries like France, Canada, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark. The vaunted American mobility story, once partially true, is no longer. The real “moral hazard” is believing this myth.

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