Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Worthy an the Unworthy

My previous blog was about the "vulnerable" and the "newly vulnerable". To many Americans another way to describe this would be the worthy and the unworthy. The worthy are those hard working Americans who work hard, play by the rules but just lose their jobs or their homes through no fault of their owns. We out it to give them a hand up. The unworthy are those people who have ongoing economic struggles above and beyond the recent recession. They made bad decisions and are now paying the price. Giving them a hand out would merely make it worse.

I'm sure there are cases of people who are just lazy who are looking for a free lunch. But most of the people who receive social and job services in normal times are people who struggle with mental issues, suffer a form of disability or found themselves stranded by an abusive husband or bankrupted by health care costs or other unforeseen events. Recently attending a meeting on siting a homeless shelter near downtown, a cop told the audience that he would break this population down into thirds. A third are people who just had bad luck. Temporary economic problems that will likely get back on their feet again. A third were people with treated or untreated mental problems who just couldn't put it together. And a third were criminals or vagrants who didn't want to work.

I'm not sure that last third figure is fair but you get the idea. The problem is political. The bottom line is that in America the poor are not popular. Republicans have successfully demagogued against Democrats by linking them with the unworthy poor. Look at the recent health care debate. Republicans have picked up a lot of support by arguing that extending health care to the "poor" will result medicare benefits being cut, or middle class health care costing more. Listen to any of the town hall meetings and you will hear people get up and talk about "the poor choices those people made".

Republicans have capitalized on the "face of the poor" since George Wallace was so successful in winning over blue collar Democrats in the mid to late 60s (see the Emerging Republican Majority by Kevin Phillips). The poor simply don't look middle class. They are often darker, less likely to speak English, and in the case of the mentally ill they just don't look right. An easy target for sure.

Democrats from tough districts know that being seen as helping the poor or the vulnerable is political suicide. What's curious is that despite the negative ramifications, most Democrats persist. At a recent State Senate Democratic retreat, Sen. Darlene Fairley described her values as "making sure those at the bottom don't get screwed." That was clearly the most widely shared value at the retreat.

A lot of the political budget game in the legislature has been Republican efforts to expose Democratic investment in social services that would be better spent on tax cuts or k12 education spending. Perhaps the best example of this has been efforts by right wing Democrats and Republicans to require that 50% of the budget be required to be spent on education. These legislators knowing full well that this effort would result in a 20% cut from the rest of the budget - namely social services.

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