Right-Wing Welfare Lies

In February 2010, I wrote this piece about conservative hypocrisy on welfare. It was published on a page that is now defunct, so here it is again. I believe the article is as topical now as it was then.

Right-Wing Welfare Lies

In his 1999 book, A Charge to Keep, George W. Bush summed up conservatives’ stance on government assistance for the poor. Bush and his ghostwriters argued that welfare made its recipients “less interested in pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and more interested in pulling down a monthly government check. A culture of dependency was born.” For the past three decades, that belief has governed the policies of Democratic as well as Republican administrations. While it is true that a “culture of dependency” arose during that time, it had nothing to do with poor people.

The chief theorist of the war on welfare is Charles Murray, who took President Ronald Reagan’s views and gave them a scholarly sheen. In his 1984 book, Losing Ground, Murray argued that welfare “subsidize[s] irretrievable mistakes” and encourages recipients “to behave in the short term in ways that [are] destructive in the long term.” Officials in both the Reagan and Bush I administrations cited the author as an authority while cutting a number of social-benefit programs and reducing eligibility for others.

But the biggest test of the GOP’s anti-welfare principles came when the Savings & Loan crisis hit in the late 1980s. Following the passage of Reagan’s 1982 deregulation law, many S&Ls engaged in irresponsible speculation that put them drastically in the red. In response, Bush I forgot his opposition to government giveaways and engineered a 1989 bailout that cost U.S. taxpayers $124.6 billion. Since the Savings & Loan troubles contributed to the recession of the early ’90s, the true cost was much higher. The S&L boondoggle was a clear instance of a policy that “subsidized mistakes” and encouraged behavior that was “destructive in the long term.” It is easy to see where today’s bankers got the idea that the U.S. Treasury was their private cash reserve.

However, the lessons of that case failed to make even a ripple in the deep wells of conservative thought. In the 1990s, Charles Murray renewed his attack on (non-corporate) welfare, arguing that it had caused the breakdown of the American family and the fundamental values of “self-restraint, self-reliance, and commitment to a civic order.” Murray charged that “the breakdown is disproportionately found in poor neighborhoods,” but the taxpayers who bailed out Silverado Savings & Loan and board member Neil Bush might have disagreed. Murray pushed his argument to its bizarre extreme in his 1994 book, The Bell Curve, written with Harvard professor Richard J. Herrnstein. The authors held that inequality stemmed from the genetic superiority of Asians and whites over African-Americans and Hispanics—and of the rich over everyone else.

A slew of other right-wing intellectuals joined the crusade against government assistance for low-income Americans. Marvin J. Olasky built on Murray’s foundation in books such as The Tragedy of American Compassion (1992) and Compassionate Conservatism (2000). In the latter, Olasky presented a series of questions that he used to assess any welfare initiative. In his foreword to Compassionate Conservatism, George W. Bush wrote that Olasky’s views were a “blueprint for government.” So let’s see how the most expensive welfare program of the Bush II administration—the bailout of Wall Street—compares to the criteria set forth by the former president’s mentor.

Olasky’s first question was, “Does the program demand accountability of the people it serves?” It is difficult to ensure accountability when you do not know how much your program costs or who receives the money. The answer to that question would therefore appear to be “No.” Olasky also asked, “Does the program teach recipients to live responsibly in conditions of freedom, or does it tend to maintain them in dependency?” Since President Barack Obama and the new Congress passed another rescue package for leading financial institutions five months after Bush’s, the 43rd president’s banker-relief plan did a bad job of teaching responsible living. (Don’t expect a better result from Obama’s plan.)

“Does the program require work by the able-bodied in return for assistance?” That is a more complicated issue. A large portion of the bailout money went to stockholders who were born rich and who rarely, if ever, held a job. As for those who actually worked in Wall Street firms that were granted federal largesse, many kept their jobs and even took home bonuses. So, from one perspective, they did work for their government checks. On the other hand, the Wall Streeters’ idea of “working” is to repeat the same scams that caused the crisis in the first place. If by “work” Olasky means employment likely to prevent the recipient from demanding another handout, then the answer to this question is “No.”

Olasky believes that it’s important for society’s no-goods to meet their benefactors and learn by their example. That is why he also asked, “Does the program foster one-to-one relationships between givers and recipients?” The bailout does not. The taxpayer provides funds to a bank at little or no interest, and the bank either pockets the money, uses it to acquire other businesses, or loans it back, often at 20-40% interest. If the taxpayer/customer has any questions, s/he is referred to an operator in India who probably never met any of the welfare recipients on the bank’s board of directors. At each point, the personal connection is lacking. In fact, the closer we look, the more amazing it seems that an Olasky disciple like George W. Bush could approve a blank check for a bunch of reprobates. It’s almost as if conservatives place an income cap on personal responsibility.

William J. Bennett is another morality cop who ignored rich crooks and put out an all-points-bulletin on poor ones. In 1996, Bennett, John J. DiIulio, and John P. Walters published Body Count: Moral Poverty and How to Win America’s War Against Crime and Drugs. The authors presented the case that immorality and criminal impulses were reaching flood tide. The most dangerous manifestation of that threat was the “super-predator.” “Super-predators place no value on the lives of their victims,” the trio explained. “The things that super-predators get by their criminal behavior—sex, drugs, money—are their own immediate rewards. Nothing else matters to them [italics original].”

Bennett et al sketched the lives of some anonymous “super-predators” in the book’s appendix, using parole officers’ case files. The appendix makes an interesting read, in light of the later actions of the Bush II administration, which Bennett endorsed, and which DiIulio joined. One super-predator was a fly-by-night contractor. He served a jail term for defrauding a woman of $2,000 “for home repair and landscaping work never performed.” The subject’s record was compiled shortly after his release from prison, so it’s impossible to tell whether he became an executive at Halliburton. At any rate, he “does not accept any responsibility for his behavior” and “has no remorse.” On the other hand, no one died as a result of this particular fraud, unlike the U.S. servicemen electrocuted in defective showers sold by a Halliburton subsidiary. Nor does the file indicate that the subject helped rapists escape legal responsibility for their actions. Consequently, his criminal instincts seem underdeveloped, compared to those of Dick Cheney’s old business cronies.

Another convict in the files “impersonated a security company employee and talked to an 81-year-old burglary victim about putting bars on the windows.” Once inside the house, she “took blank checks and credit cards from the victim’s purse.” It is indeed monstrous to rob vulnerable people under the guise of offering them safety. But if this fake home-security specialist is a “super-predator”, what should we call the Bushites who started a war for oil profits in Iraq, and sent patriotic Americans to die in it? “Ultra-extra-super-duper-predators?” Right-wing politicians have acknowledged taking ideas from Bennett’s books, but none mentioned that they were referring to the appendix of Body Count.

The results are in: the country is indeed saddled by parasites and predators who are addicted to government handouts. The culprits are top corporate executives and stockholders, plus the politicians they own. The right-wing war on welfare for the poor is a red herring to rival any whale. It provides cover for the real freeloaders, while assailing programs that are needed to keep the average American from financial ruin. In a series of studies beginning in the late 1990s, scholars Mark R. Rank and Thomas Hirschl showed that 60% of Americans will spend at least one year below the poverty line. Two-thirds will receive government aid such as Food Stamps or Medicaid for at least a year, while 40% will receive such assistance for five years. And that was before the current crisis, which, incidentally, was caused by corporate welfare.

If conservative welfare “experts” want to do something productive for a change, they can prepare new editions of their books, substituting the word “rich” for “poor” every time the latter occurs. It may seem a tedious task, but the first step toward personal responsibility is often the toughest.