About 30 years ago I was dining with a French family I knew, and the conversation turned to our countries’ differing attitudes about safety nets for the poor. France, then and now, has what amounts to a minimum guaranteed income for its citizens.


My friends explained that the French tolerate only a certain level of poverty. That is, they share the notion of a social contract that allows for government intervention when poverty is extreme.  The United States doesn’t see it the same way, my friends observed. Here, an economic safety net is not considered a given; a foundational element essential to a society that espouses other basic rights, like freedom of speech or freedom to worship as one wishes.


In the US, we increasingly accept the widening disparity between our poorest citizens and our wealthiest. We seem to say to ourselves that if the poor can’t pull themselves up by their metaphorical bootstraps, they must deserve their lot in life. After all, look at all the people from impoverished homes who have clawed their way up the socio-economic ladder! If they did it, why can’t all poor people?


It’s too bad bromides like that are nonsense. If they were true, generational poverty in America would have eased long ago. Yet poverty persists — nay, intensifies — because we don’t share the notion of a social compact that obligates us to help the  less fortunate. Indeed, we reject such thinking. Look at what happened to Democrats’ latest initiative to help our poorest citizens climb out of poverty, the Build Back Better bill.  Senate Republicans, along with their two soulmates from West Virginia and Arizona, killed the bill after two months of legislative piddling and twiddling. 


NO! We will not expand the social safety net! The country can’t afford it and it will only reward indolence among poor people, who’ve chosen to spend their days watching TV and eating Cheetos instead of going to work.


Among the casualties of the failed bill was a provision to continue paying our poorest families $3,000 per year per child. The program — started during the pandemic — was widely considered a success. It cut childhood poverty rates by more than a third. But during debate about continuing it as part of the Build Back Better bill,  Republicans cited its costs.  It was too expensive, according to King Joe Manchin. 


Let’s examine his argument.


Passing the entire bill would have cost the government $1.6 trillion over 10 years. (Of that sum the child tax credits would cost $200 billion.) Yes, that’s a huge number and a huge responsibility, but let’s put it into perspective: It would be less than the tax savings large corporations and the rich are getting over the same time period, thanks to Trump’s 2018 Trump tax cut. Eliminating those tax cuts would have covered the cost of $3,000 payments to poor families with children, plus the rest of the programs in the Build Back Better bill. Still not persuaded? Ponder this then: The $1.6 trillion price tag is less than the increase in wealth toted up by our 745 billionaires during the pandemic! A wealth tax to fund Build Back Better  would still leave all 745 billionaires unimaginably wealthy. 


So why was a program so helpful to poor families a political non-starter in our vaunted democracy? Is it possible that we don’t really have a democracy but rather an oligarchy or plutocracy? Does the common good always have to come in second, behind what’s in first place — the right to accumulate unlimited wealth? Does unfettered capitalism always have to win out over enlightened, benevolent social policy?


The tension between democracy and capitalism was described perfectly by Robert Reich in an op-ed piece in the Feb. 13 Guardian: “Capitalism is consistent with democracy only if democracy reduces the inequalities, insecurities, joblessness, and poverty that accompany unbridled profit-seeking.” 


There you have it. Since the election of Ronald Reagan, any notion of limiting  capitalism has been steadily eroded. The post-World War II dynamic of balancing power among business, labor and government is a distant memory. Even Clinton helped destroy the balance by freeing financial institutions to do just about anything they wanted. They became “too big to fail.”


Capitalism, as practiced today in the US, is inconsistent with democracy — a political system whereby the majority rules and policy is shaped around the concept of the greatest good for the greatest number. It wasn’t always this way, not even when some Republicans — Eisenhower and the first Bush, for example —  were in charge. Today’s unrestrained capitalism grew from seeds planted during the Reagan administration. Governing in service of wealth accumulation began to supplant governing in service of the common good. Now wealth accumulation is viewed by many as a right — a de facto principle of our supposed democracy, even though it’s not in the Bill of Rights.


My hope – quixotic though it may be – is that the poor can help pull our democracy out of the mess it’s in. How? By turning out en masse in every election and voting for candidates who will fight hard for their economic interests. No more voting for candidates just because of their stance on hot-button issues — abortion, Covid policy, guns, and other idealogical distractions that the Republicans always dangle. Instead, if enough poor people vote their economic interests, our country might be forced to reset its compass. We might elect leaders determined to serve the common good. 


It’s easy for politicians to distract voters who should be thinking about their own economic well being. A man I happened to work with years ago is a virulent right-wing Republican. He and his wife check all the boxes. I once accused him of having been drugged into believing that he was a billionaire gun collector because he voted like one. Though poor, he loved tax cuts that benefited the wealthy. He owned no guns but supported every NRA position. He simply loved to be part of the right-wing macho crowd even though it never did a thing for him economically or socially. He and millions like him elected Trump and have kept  Republicans ascendant to this day. 


If the opposition cannot make those people see the light and vote their interests, the age of plutocracy may be here to stay.

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About Buck Close

Deacon Buck Close serves on the staff of the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Newport, RI. He was born in South Carolina, graduated from Tulane University in 1972 with a BA in Economics and Latin American Studies.

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