How Have We Come So Far?

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“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much;
it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

I recently visited Washington, D.C., and made my way for the first time to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. It is set up as a brief history of his 12 years in office, depicting significant moments of his presidency and featuring substantive quotes of his, including the one above. Being there caused me to reflect on the current state of affairs in this country and to wonder how, in the span of 80 years, we’ve gone from a country that seemed to believe in the righteousness of helping those less fortunate to a country in which many people see the state of being “unfortunate” not as, in fact, unfortunate, but as a personal failing deserving of little help.

America has always been imbued with a greater sense of individualism than most other societies – a sense of can-do spirit that anyone can make it in the “land of opportunity” – but America had, for much of its existence, steadily moved toward a society which provided benefits to all its citizens, particularly those in need. However, the past 30-plus years have seen a marked reversal of this, with a growing pushback against the “welfare state” and a move toward a more purely individualistic society.

At a time when we are having very fundamental fights over the role and size of government and what it should and should not provide, the seemingly simple idea of providing for those who are less fortunate appears to be in question. And some of that question hinges on the concept of being “fortunate” or “unfortunate.” Modern conservative thought, which owes much to the Protestant ideals of hard work and sacrifice, generally views being poor not as “unfortunate” but as a chosen state of being, a result of personal choices and failures that have landed such person in their state of poverty. Consequently, such people are not deserving of help or welfare or, to the extent they are, such help should only be in the form of “a hand up, not a handout.”

This is not to say that conservatives – or Protestants – are not giving, but that they prefer to direct their giving to those individuals and groups that they believe are worthy. While this may result in substantial charitable giving to churches and certain non-profit organizations, it reduces the willingness to direct tax dollars to general government assistance programs such as welfare or Medicaid – or to authorize the taxes necessary for those programs in the first place. This leads to an inefficient allocation of resources to organizations or causes that, while worthy in their own right, may not have the greatest impact on our society.

The Depression was a unique moment in American history which caused an unprecedented loss of wealth and lead to poverty so widespread and indiscriminate that Americans were moved to take a different view of the role of government in society – a much more expanded role which included Social Security and various housing programs, and paved the way for Medicare, Medicaid and other future programs. While it’s not unreasonable to have a debate over the size and scope of governmental assistance programs, much of the actual debate – or at least the push for legislation affecting them – often seems driven by a desire to undermine them (the drastic cuts to Medicaid in the recent failed GOP healthcare legislation) or eliminate the government’s responsibility for them (the idea of privatizing Social Security).

The payoff for these changes being pushed by conservatives is almost always reduced taxes, primarily for the wealthy and corporations. No matter how much lipstick they put on the pig in the form of their tired, disproven “lower taxes lead to growth for everyone” trickle-down economics, the fact of the matter is that the wealthy conservative donor base of the GOP just doesn’t want to pay taxes for assistance programs benefiting others, particularly the poor. By appealing to the non-economic values of the poorer portions of their voter base (“God and guns” to paraphrase Barack Obama), they have convinced those people who will be harmed by these economic policies that the alternative outcome – Democrats coming for their bibles and rifles – is worse and that, in any case, they don’t need the help, because if they just work hard enough, riches await them. And, all those “other” poor people are just non-working “takers” and don’t deserve the help in the first place, never mind that a majority of government assistance beneficiaries are, in fact, poor whites, who make up a substantial portion of the conservative base.

Somehow, this conversation must be changed. A broader cross-section of America must be reminded that helping our fellow Americans – and that help itself – is not an evil best avoided; that the further enrichment of a few is not worth the continued impoverishment of the many; that the possibility of achievement in America is not eroded, but enhanced, by ensuring that those who need help receive it.

“I see a great nation, upon a great continent, blessed with a great wealth of natural resources. Its hundred and thirty million people are at peace among themselves; they are making their country a good neighbor among the nations. I see a United States which can demonstrate that, under democratic methods of government, national wealth can be translated into a spreading volume of human comforts hitherto unknown, and the lowest standard of living can be raised far above the level of mere subsistence.

“But here is the challenge to our democracy: In this nation I see tens of millions of its citizens – a substantial part of its whole population – who at this very moment are denied the greater part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life.

“I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day.

“I see millions whose daily lives in city and on farm continue under conditions labeled indecent by a so-called polite society half a century ago.

“I see millions denied education, recreation, and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children.

“I see millions lacking the means to buy the products of farm and factory and by their poverty denying work and productiveness to many other millions.

“I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.

"But it is not in despair that I paint you that picture. I paint it for you in hope – because the nation, seeing and understanding the injustice in it, proposes to paint it out. We are determined to make every American citizen the subject of his country’s interest and concern; and we will never regard any faithful law-abiding group within our borders as superfluous. The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

– Franklin D. Roosevelt, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1937

Hopefully it doesn’t take another Great Depression to change the conversation.

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