The most recent installment of Lauren Salz’s column (“Cold-hearted conservatism,” April 22) ran on this page a few days ago and quite effectively encapsulated many of the errors conservatives commit in trying to understand, let alone solve, the problems of a modern social economy.
In a triumphant narration dripping with self-righteousness, Salz recounts how her charity work in Ghana delivered her to the revelation that charity “create[s] a culture of begging and entitlement.” Why? Because “if there are positive incentives to be the most needy, then people will respond to those incentives,” to the “moral detriment” of society.
And so we sadly recourse to 1983 and the failed conservative logic of welfare queendom that is propagated by Fox News, tea-baggers, and other conservative minions and hit men.
Unlike conservatives in Washington, Salz readily admits that the social economy is “a bigger problem that I cannot solve, or even understand.” Curiously, this does not stop her from employing the same maladapted analogies and stale clichés that conservatives apply not only to social welfare generally, but more specifically to the Obama administration’s response to the current economy.
This conservative argument relies on two points: (1) that social welfare denigrates the “self-worth” of its beneficiaries, and (2) that social welfare incentivizes sloth and creates moral hazards by catering to immediate, unrestrained desires. The first point is wound up in a particularly outdated and reductive understanding of “self-worth,” while the second is just false, even fraudulent.
The assertion that welfare programming (what conservatives call “handouts”) reduces the self-worth of its recipients implies that individuals are only valuable to the extent that they can provide for themselves.
Not only does this doctrine relegate teeming hordes of socially disadvantaged and disabled persons who lost the social lottery to permanent second-class status, it further denies any sort of subjective understanding or appreciation for the self. Conservatives, who often reek of Friedmanist claims to inviolable individuality, surely would not have meant to imply that individuals must subject their views on self-worth to a single conception, would they?
Their second point is equally flawed. Figures provided by the Administration for Children and Families indicate no evidence that welfare cheating is a significant problem. As recently as 15 years ago, less than 5 percent of all welfare benefits went to persons who were not entitled to them, and this figure is likely to have plummeted since former president Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms took effect.
Nor are recipients getting rich from welfare. Aid to Families with Dependent Children and food stamps are the two largest welfare programs. In 2002, the annual AFDC family payment averaged around $5,000, and food stamps for a family of three averaged around $2,500. With the current cost of living around $13,000 per year, this $7,500 is a little more than 57 percent of what it costs to subsist.
Is this really a positive incentive for poverty? Comically, and tragically, many conservatives say it is.
Conservatives further suggest that welfare programming effectively “gives in” to licentious desires, fostering in their minds some fantastical image of the tutelary state. But most welfare barely provides half of what it costs a family to survive. Suggesting that food stamps give license for debauchery is ludicrous to the extent that it paints feeding the hungry as an exorbitant and unwarranted act of “catering” to one’s immediate needs.
This, conservatives have said, contributes to the “moral detriment” of society. I would offer that the Congressional Republicans and misinformed tea-baggers protesting tax hikes on the top two percent of Americans better exhibit the extravagant attachment to “immediate needs” that conservatives seem to be searching for.
On a personal level, I, like many other Columbians, have benefited from these handouts in the form of federal scholarships—but not as much as my dad, whose family, after his father died when he was only 14, was supported by government programming.
This safety net kept him and his younger sister from having to drop out of middle school, and later fully funded their college and graduate educations.
Today, my father proudly pays his taxes knowing they will provide similar opportunities for today’s youth. Does this make him a self-entitled beggar, and my aunt a welfare queen?
I wrote back in November that Republicans would likely turn to Reagan-myth economics in an effort to revive their irrevocably flawed platform that had been built on culture wars and blind American exceptionalism. Indeed, it appears that they have done so.
Yet while nonsensical, forced analogies might make good rhetoric for conservative rallies, it has not made, and does not make, good policy. This country has suffered enough from conservatives’ false claims grounded in ignorance and pressured by delusion.
Their hearts might not be cold, but if there is any grand source of moral detriment in our society today, it crawls out the mouths of these conservative ideologues.
The author is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in political science.