Punish the Poor


Tavis Smiley, a host on the as yet still-funded PBS, recently called the 2011 Budget agreement an immoral document. If he had been referring to the last Congress’ blatant abdication of duty in failing, for crass political purposes, to even propose a 2011 budget, he would have been right. Unfortunately, he was referring to the attempt to inject some fiscal sanity into the federal government. Where Smiley comes from, fiscal sanity is racist.

“I don’t understand why it is in this town that every debate about money always begins and ends with how we can further reward the rich and more punish the poor,” Smiley frowned.

Which got me to thinking. Which is better, to reward the rich and punish the poor, or to punish the rich and reward the poor? The latter option seems to be what people like Smiley are naturally drawn to. Every time the President addresses the subject of budget restraint he refers contemptuously to “millionaires and billionaires,” who make too much money and pay too few taxes. The President views the rich, and the enterprises by which they generate their wealth, as anathema.

Yet what of the alternative? Has there ever been a culture which has long endured once it chose to travel the path of punishing the rich and rewarding the poor? Why shouldn’t the rich be rewarded? Isn’t wealth that to which what most people aspire? Do any of us actually respect and admire those who can’t take care of themselves? We may take pity on them, and give them money for food or shelter, but do we really like them? Do we want to like them? Did you ever hear someone say, “I was born with all the advantages, but through discipline and will power, I managed to become poor?”

The rich occupy a realm to which most people aspire, and from their wealth comes much good. The great foundations, which provide so much help and encouragement to so many underprivileged, were created not by the poor, but by the wealthy. In America’s great museums the art hanging on the walls often came from wealthy donors, but never from the poor. It is the rich who create jobs; Nancy Pelosi’s demented assertions aside, giving money to the poor does not.

Being poor is not an admirable goal. It is not something to be pursued, or praised, or rewarded. Poverty carries with it in its essence a stigma, and it is not the proper role of the state to assuage that sense of shame. To the contrary, the role of the state should be to reiterate, and to amplify that sense. The state should let poor people know, not only are they failing themselves, but they are failing their children, and their society.

Medicaid is one of the three “entitlements” which comprise the wall of bricks teetering precariously over the American economy. It is projected to continue growing at an ever increasing rate, soaking up more and more of taxpayers’ dollars, and contributing ever more to our burgeoning debt. How to continue to pay for this is one of the great issues confronting those few adults willing to actually attempt to tackle the issue. Yet one solution no one mentions is reducing the cost of Medicaid by reducing the number of people who qualify.

The modern welfare state, comprised as it is of “safety nets” and “entitlements”, is built on the concept of destigmatizing poverty. It offers incentives for impoverishment, and penalizes those who seek to escape it. Ironically, this system, which tends to perpetuate an entire segment of our population in social, cultural and financial poverty, is maintained in the name of compassion.

True compassion would involve offering incentives to escape poverty, and a consistent, committed policy of calling poverty what it is, a shame, a drain, and a lousy way to live.