Paternalism for thee, poor person, but not for me or any of my pals

In his defense of Paul Ryan’s compassionate plan to help the poor by treating them like ex-cons, Reihan Salam lifts the veil around the whole “libertarian, unless” side of movement er, reform, I mean reform, conservatism:

If all of this caseworker talk sounds paternalistic to you, you’re on to something. Conservatives hate nanny-statism, and are always railing against the regulations that get in the way of entrepreneurs. When it comes to the poor, however, most conservatives lose their live-and-let-live attitude.

You don’t say?

The basic idea here is that if you’re going to get help from the taxpayers, the taxpayers should have a say in how you use it.

Oh, OK. That seems reasonable. I can haz a seat on Goldman’s board now?

That is why conservatives are more likely to support food stamps, which can be spent only on food, and the earned-income tax credit, which gives an income boost to low-income workers, than no-strings-attached cash, even though a simple cash payment requires far lower administrative costs.

ADKAKSERBFUWE. I’m sorry, I blacked out there for a second. Let’s just say that if this kind of thing is what “conservative support” looks like, then I’m not sure words have meaning anymore.

By and large, though, conservatives take a libertarian view when it comes to people who can support themselves and a paternalistic view to those who can’t. One interpretation of this split is that conservatives hate the poor and can’t stand the idea of treating them with dignity.

Huh. Well, now that you mention it, I guess that would be one way of looking at it.

Another interpretation, which strikes me as closer to the mark, is that conservatives want people who can’t support themselves to become people who can. The problem is that this is easier said than done, and it won’t happen overnight, hence the need for some kind of safety net.

Yes, well, another interpretation is that conservatives, even of the “reform” variety, fundamentally believe that poor people are poor because they “can’t support themselves” for reasons that some how aren’t “there aren’t enough jobs to go around” and “wages at the jobs that do exist have been flatlining for 35 years.” So they’ve convinced themselves that poor people are poor because of some deep personal, moral failing that must be rectified with the guiding hand of a friendly parole officer government aid worker. This is, in the technical economic term, a “load of bullshit,” and it is pretty much precisely what someone who “can’t stand the idea of treating [the poor] with dignity” would propose.

The most controversial idea in Ryan’s anti-poverty plan, at least as it stands right now, is that poor families should work with government agencies or approved nonprofit or for-profit service providers to develop a plan for achieving economic independence. But wait a second, you might say—Social Security beneficiaries aren’t required to present a plan! Why should poor people be treated differently than workers who’ve been making Social Security contributions for decades, and who are collecting benefits at the end of a long working life? There’s actually a pretty straightforward reason: Social Security is designed for old people. No two old people are the same, to be sure, but they all have the same basic problem: They are too old to work, or to work very long hours. That’s a problem we can deal with.

People with low or no earnings, in contrast, face diverse obstacles. Some need short-term help to, say, fix their car, which will allow them to commute to work, or to make a deposit on a rental apartment. Others don’t have the skills they need to earn enough to support themselves and, for whatever reason, will have a very hard time acquiring them. Sure, you could give both kinds of people food stamps and call it a day. Or you could recognize that one-size-fits-all programs don’t do justice to the ways in which individual circumstances vary.

This is a great point…so, then, you could just give these folks cash, and let them decide how best to use it to meet their own needs, without having to meet a case worker once a week to make sure they’re all living up to Paul Ryan’s expectations, like he’s their perennially disappointed step-dad or something. Because somebody who just got laid off and can’t make this month’s rent doesn’t need guidance on how to properly manage his daily life (HINT: he needs money), and a single mother who can’t hold down a job and find affordable child care is not, and I know this is a big one for conservatives to accept but it will be great if they ever can, a moral failure who needs to be lectured on how to make better life choices (HINT: she needs money too). These are people who know what they need to do to get on their feet, and in most cases will use the aid they’re given to do it. Sure, there will be people who abuse the system, just as they abuse the current system and as they would certainly abuse Ryan’s proposed system, whose case worker enforcers would likely be overwhelmed and underfunded from Day 1. But the vast majority of poor folks in this country don’t deserve to be punished, or infantilized, for the non-crime of hitting a rough patch in life.

I should add that Salam’s piece also included one whopping misstatement about the official poverty rate that Matt Bruenig caught in the course of thoroughly countering the rest of Salam’s argument. In fact, you should have just gone and read what Bruenig wrote and never come here, which is why I have calculatingly placed the link to his piece at the very end of this one.


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