Thursday, December 30, 2010

"Are there no workhouses"?

Unfortunately, this long story on Huffington Post disappeared almost as rapidly as it appeared. It deserves more consideration:

There have always been people who for one reason or other -- inability to find a job, old age, disability, racism, sexism, drug addiction -- have been unable to cobble together the means to support themselves. For most of the nation's history, and for all of its colonial past, those people have been dealt with much differently than they were following the enactment of the New Deal, and, in particular, the 1935 Social Security Act, which created old-age insurance, unemployment insurance and welfare. Those programs were expanded over the next several decades and grew to include Medicare, Medicaid, the children's health insurance program and food stamps.
Consider just a few facts from the article:

Quantifying the success of a social policy is an exercise often frustrated by life's infinite variables. But Social Security is one program so effective that the entire decline in poverty can safely be attributed to it, even by the most cautious academics. "Our analysis suggests that the growth in Social Security can indeed explain all of the decline in poverty among the elderly over this period," concluded Gary Engelhardt and Jonathan Gruber in a rigorous 2004 National Bureau of Economic Research report on the program.
And then, where we are going:

The nearly 54 million people drawing Social Security benefits receive, on average, $1,073.80 per month, according to the Social Security Administration. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates the program keeps some 20 million people out of poverty, including 13 million elderly Americans. Engelhardt and Gruber calculate that each ten percent cut in benefits would lead to a 7.2 percent increase in poverty. Such cuts are beginning to seem likely, despite the robust state of the program's finances, which can cover full benefits through 2037 and boasts a surplus trust fund of $2.6 trillion as of this fall.
The keystone of the Social Security Act, its eponymous retirement insurance, has already been fractured by a deal between Obama and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who this month agreed to a Social Security payroll tax holiday as a method of stimulating the economy. Republicans openly admit that when the holiday's expiration arrives next year, it will be treated as a tax hike, meaning Social Security's dedicated revenue stream, which has never been tampered with before, may now be compromised, at the same time that leading Democrats propose cutting benefits and raising the retirement age.
But Republican opposition is not something cooked up by Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich and handed on to Mitch McConnell and Jim DeMint:

Time Magazine summarized the position of Social Security's Republican opponents in 1936: "Wage earners, you will pay and pay in taxes...and when you are very old, you will have an I.O.U. which the U.S. Government may make good if it is still solvent."
Delaney and Grim begin with the story of "Aunt Winnie," a poor woman removed to a poor house in the late 19th century; and they note that this kind of "social service" is being championed, openly, by Glenn Beck:

Aunt Winnie, whose story is preserved in the archives of the Historical Society of Washington, had been sent to an American institution that was by then some 300 years old and went by a variety of names: the county farm, the poor farm, the almshouse or, most often, simply the poorhouse. She would probably have been surprised to learn that more than a hundred years later, after the virtual eradication of elderly poverty, a powerful political movement would materialize with the mission of returning to the hands-off social policies that made the poorhouse the nation's only refuge for the jobless, the aged, the infirm and the disabled.

That movement's most outspoken proponent is Fox News host Glenn Beck, who doesn't merely pine for the pre-New Deal era in general, but regularly prevails upon his audience to recognize the particular genius of some of the period's presidents, whose ideologies of inaction he holds up as the American ideal.
But as they point out, that kind of governmental inaction is as American as cherry pie. And the human problem is older, much, much older. Walter Brueggeman described it as the "theology of scarcity," and traces it back to the Biblical record of Solomon's reign. Or, to quote myself from three years ago:

Solomon became a centralized power in Israel (something, by the way, God had warned Israel about back in 1 Samuel). He became the main source and owner of chariots and arms, which he also sold; so he was an arms dealer. He levied tributes on those who came through Israel (it was on the trade routes), and on all the peole of Israel. Tributes, of course, are nothing more than taxes, and they do nothing more than take money from the many, and give it to the one: the king. It's good to be king; for the king. He also built the Temple, in a style typical for the Near East; but there's another issue there, and it's the same underlying issue: the Temple enforced control.

The Temple was arranged into three areas: the outer Temple, where women and slaves and all the "non-persons" of Israel could gather. The Inner Temple, where the men of Israel alone could go; and, in a small room at the back, the "holy of holies," where only the priest could enter. Brueggeman said if you put wings on the Temple, it would be a modern passenger plane. The elite board first, and get the best seats in a special section, while the rest of us board last and sit cheek by jowl. Those up front even get the curtain drawn so we can't see what they are eating. The cockpit, of course, is there the priest goes.

Contrast this to Sinai, says Brueggeman, where all of Israel saw Moses on the mountain talking to God. Now, most of Israel can't even go into the inner temple, and no one is allowed to venture into the place where God could be seen.

Control, in other words, with access guaranteed by accidents of birth. All the Jubilee stuff that comes into Deuteronomy, by the way, doesn't even exist yet, and under Solomon it never will. That would cost him control.

Solomon becomes "wise," too, not because he is born that way, but because he puts scholars on his payroll, and pays them to know and learn wisdom and give it to him as he needs it. He controls knowledge, then, too; as much as he possibly can. And Solomon does one more thing: when he fights his brother for the throne, he kills all his brother's supporters after he becomes king. All of them save the priest, whom he exiles to a small village, where the priest leaves so long as he remains quiet. His power consolidated, Solomon proceeds to build a Temple to prove his power and wealth, and to enjoy a reputation that he largely bought and paid for with other people's money.
The theology of scarcity says there is only so much to go around, and a wise ruler will see to it that limited amount is preserved and protected and used prudently, lest we run out. Kindness becomes a kind of madness, because there isn't enough to share; there is only enough for those who are deserving. Which, say Delaney and Grim, is precisely the "problem" with Social Security, or any aid to the poor:

What is dangerous about Social Security is that it works. It is evidence that people can do a better job insuring against life's cruel downturns by working together and pooling resources than by going it alone in the market....

And Democrats pander to the relentless fear that an offer of kindness may wind up helping someone who either doesn't need the aid or who is in need but is to blame for their pitiful circumstances. President Obama articulated that worry in a weighted response to a question about why his attempts to slow foreclosures had been largely unsuccessful.

During a meeting with progressive bloggers, Obama was asked to defend his administration's failure to stem the foreclosure tide. The president's worry, he said, was that his anti-foreclosure program might accidentally help people who didn't deserve it. "The biggest challenge is how do you make sure that you are helping those who really deserve help, and, if they get some temporary help, can get back on their feet," Obama said, specifically adding that he didn't want the effort to assist "people who through no fault of their own just can't afford their house anymore because of the change in housing values or their incomes don't support it."
In other words, if we cannot help the deserving, perhaps it is better not to help anyone at all.

Read the story of "Aunt Minnie" at the beginning of the article, and try to imagine yourself in her place. Where, in a major urban area, would you go to build a shack from tar paper and scraps? One whose land would you put it, and would they let you stay there? The homeless now live under overpasses or bridges or in ditches, if they are allowed to. Since Houston widened I-10 the overpasses, once home to the homeless, are barren concrete stretches. I can only assume the police are more diligent about driving people away who seek shelter there. I don't assume there are more rooms for them, more "poorhouses" or workhouses or debtor's prisons. Where would I go if I lost my jobs, and so my house? Where would you go? Who would take you in, and for how long?

Or should we go back to this?

"I am informed that you are three months back on your rent. The understanding that I had in your case was that if the county furnished the food, you were to take care for your own rent," wrote a county commissioner to Green on Jan. 26, 1937, one of the coldest winters of the century. "If you do not 'snap out of it' and get to working and paying your rent, my next call on you will be with the police officer and will take your whole family to the county farm. The state of New Hampshire will place your children. A word to the wise is sufficient."
We end, because 'tis the season, with the parting words of the Ghost of Christmas Present to Scrooge:

The chimes were ringing the three quarters past eleven at that moment.

"Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask," said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit's robe, "but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw?"

"It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it," was the Spirit's sorrowful reply. "Look here."

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

"Oh, Man, look here! Look, look, down here!" exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

"Spirit, are they yours?" Scrooge could say no more.

"They are Man's," said the Spirit, looking down upon them. "And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!" cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. "Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end."

"Have they no refuge or resource?" cried Scrooge.

"Are there no prisons?" said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. "Are there no workhouses?"
If we are not responsible, if we are not our brother's and sister's resource and refuge, who is?


  1. God forbid that we should help the "undeserving"! I hear over and over about the lazy people who won't lift a finger to help themselves and the people who overextended themselves with mortgages on houses that they could not afford. What is the answer? How do we insure that no one who is "undeserving" gets government money? We don't. We do our best to see that those who need help the most get help. Inevitably, some "undeserving" will get help, and some deserving will fall through the cracks. Government cannot provide complete justice and fairness, but we do the best we can to be, as you say, "our brother's and sister's resource and refuge".

    The reluctance to be our brother's and sister's keeper seems peculiarly American. Other countries do better than the US in providing safety nets.

    Oooh! I seem to have misplaced my patriotism.

  2. Oriscus12:25 AM

    I'm reminded of this passage from RH Tawney's Religion and the Rise of Capitalism,: "[T]he poor, it is well known, are of two kinds, 'the industrious poor,' who work for their betters, and 'the idle poor,' who work for themselves."

    Tawney then goes on to quote bits of Mandeville's The Parable of the Bees: "'It would be easier, where property was well secured, to live without money than without poor,...who, as they ought to be kept from starving, so they should receive nothing worth saving'; the poor 'have nothing to stir them up to be serviceable but their wants, which it is prudence to relieve, but folly to cure'; 'to make society happy, it is necessary that great numbers should be wretched as well as poor.'"

    Woe that I have lived to see this actively pursued as public policy.

  3. Contrast this to Sinai, says Brueggeman, where all of Israel saw Moses on the mountain talking to God.This is my favorite from here which i have like.

  4. Together with other abnormal ear noises, ear ringing is medically called tinnitus. Buzzing, roaring, and pulsitile sounds are sometimes perceived when no sound is present in persons with tinnitus.

  5. While you may not need life insurance, and you might be willing to risk not having earthquake insurance, don't gamble with health insurance. Just a couple of days in the hospital can drain almost anyone's savings. Thanks.