It Isn’t Only About the Money

One of the most time-honored adages in political life is “follow the money.” And for many issues that policymakers debate, that’s good advice. Self-interest often explains positions that are otherwise inexplicable.

Sometimes, however, a cynical approach to the political process can blind us to cultural assumptions and ideological commitments that have significant explanatory power. That’s particularly true of American debates about social programs, poverty and inequality; I would argue that some of the most passionate advocates of “market-based healthcare,” and “personal responsibility” are unaware of the roots of their perspectives on these issues.

Representative Paul Ryan is a handy example of what I’ve come to call “economic self-delusion.” Ryan is a favorite of self-styled “fiscal conservatives” who see him (as he clearly sees himself) as a hard-headed advocate of economically-responsible policies. The problem is, the anti-safety-net policies he defends as fiscally responsible tend to be more costly to taxpayers than he and his partisans are willing to admit—and often more costly than the programs he would gut.

A couple of recent studies of homelessness highlight the phenomenon.

Typically, liberal arguments for providing homeless folks with permanent housing center on morality and compassion, allowing conservatives (like Ryan) to respond that such an approach is far too costly (and somehow un-American).

The Central Florida Commission on Homelessness provides a fiscal argument as well. “The numbers are stunning,” Andrae Bailey, the organization’s CEO told the Orlando Sentinel. “Our community will spend nearly half a billion dollars [on the chronically homeless], and at the end of the decade, these people will still be homeless.”

Bailey was referring to a study by Creative Housing Solutions, which tracked public expenditures on local homeless people in the Central Florida region. That analysis calculated the costs of frequent emergency room visits, hospital admissions and repeated arrests for homeless-related crimes, and estimated that each homeless person cost taxpayers $31,065 each year. Providing the chronically homeless with permanent housing and case managers to supervise them would cost about $10,000 per person each year.

Homelessness is hardly the only area where American society is stubbornly “penny wise and pound foolish.” From early childhood education to health care, research supports the cost savings of early interventions via a strong social-safety net.

Why are so many elected officials—and the constituents who elect them—absolutely convinced that social programs are simply costly incubators of dependency? Why are they unwilling to believe credible research that dispels stereotypes like those of the “Welfare Queen” and the lazy “inner-city” social parasite?

If we really want to understand where these attitudes come from, we need to revisit some historic attitudes about poverty. In a very real sense, proponents and critics of social welfare programs are still arguing about policies dating to 1349, when England enacted the Statute of Laborers; that Statute prohibited people from giving alms, or charity, to “sturdy beggars,” that is, those who had the ability to work.

The Elizabethan Poor Law incorporated a distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor that would be carried to the colonies and reproduced in the laws of most states. It was the model that settlers brought to the New World; it was the approach adopted by the original thirteen colonies, and as people moved west, it was the approach incorporated in the Ordinance of 1787, which prescribed rules for governing the Northwest Territory.

To a significant extent, the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor and the emphasis upon work have remained the primary framework through which Americans view social welfare and poverty issues.

That distinction was further reinforced by religion, especially Calvinism.

The belief that poverty is evidence of divine disapproval—that virtue is rewarded by material success—was held by a number of the early Protestants who settled the colonies, and that belief has continued to influence American law and culture. In the early 1900s, moral disapproval of the poor found an ally in science, and poverty issues were caught up in a national debate between Social Darwinists like William Graham Summer and their critics.

In language eerily reminiscent of earlier admonitions against rewarding “sturdy beggars,” Sumner wrote: “But the weak who constantly arouse the pity of humanitarians and philanthropists are the shiftless, the imprudent, the negligent, the impractical, and the inefficient, or they are the idle, the intemperate, the extravagant and the vicious. Now the troubles of these persons are constantly forced upon public attention, as if they and their interests deserved especial consideration, and a great portion of all organized and unorganized effort for the common welfare consists in attempts to relieve these classes of people….”

It wasn’t until the Great Depression that American lawmakers acknowledged the need for some sort of social safety net. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the dislocations of the 1930’s or the passage of New Deal legislation changed Americans’ deeply-rooted beliefs about the relationship between poverty and moral defect.

We see the influence of Social Darwinism and echoes of Sumner in today’s “makers and takers” meme, in the arguments that welfare creates “dependency” (in the poor, but evidently not among recipients of corporate welfare) and in Paul Ryan’s proposed budget.

Research dispelling the mythology is important, but it isn’t enough. Somehow, we need to change the cultural assumptions that produce punitive policies.

We need a new Social Gospel.


  1. Thank you for this insightful research. I’ll be sharing it with lots of folks.

  2. Ryan and others like him seem to believe we are all born alike, and our Capitalist System allows everyone to advance through personal effort. We are not born alike with all the same raw abilities. As a personal note our adopted daughter was diagnosed with ADHD in first grade. My Wife and I suspected she was just a lot more energetic than most kids her age. School was not a pleasant experience for her. She lacked focus and organization. Success in school is based on tests and behavior. Because she marched to different drummer other children ostracized her. Therapy and IEP’s helped but nothing could change the nature of the way her brain worked.

    What might have happened to Einstein if he had born an African-American in the Deep South?

    I have dyslexia I can read fine but all I can say is I thank the inventor of Spell Check.

    Pope Francis recently criticized in Evangelii Gaudium the “idolatry of money” and wealth inequality around the world. The Right Wing was quick on the draw: Rush Limbaugh commented Pope Francis had “gone beyond Catholicism” and into “pure Marxism.” Fox News senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano said the document “reveals a disturbing ignorance” by the Pope. The Pope further said on “trickle-down” economics – “The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefiting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger nothing ever comes out for the poor.”

  3. Louie; the closing of three Catholic churches in Indianapolis is a prime example of the lack of trickle-down effect in that religion world wide. The vast wealth heaped on support of the Pope and the Vatican while leaving smaller, poorer churches crumbling and parishioners in need is a sinful situation. These smaller, well established churches in Indianapolis once aided and supported surrounding neighborhoods and all who were in need. They met needs of those who were hungry, in need of clothing or heat in these cold winters. If this situation isn’t all about the money is also isn’t about Chritianity – or any other religion who gives help when and where it is needed to all in need. Too many of our neighborhoods are crumbling, the number of abandoned homes and businesses receives only lip-service from elected officials. Churches and schools were the heart of neighborhoods in the past; they are now being abandoned along with loyal parishioners who may not be able to get to the newly merged Catholic churches and schools that the wealthiest religious organization has deemed the best financial decision. The churches who will remain and accept these evicted parishioners from other areas need to be closely investigated by Public Health and OSHA officials for health and safety conditions before adding to their number of congregants.

  4. Paul Ryan has forgotten how the social security survivor benefits he received after his father passed away kept his family from poverty. He forgot how his status in society prevented him from poverty after his father was long gone. Of course, his father made a significant amount of money unlike my father who was a lathe operator in northern Indiana. When my father passed away, social security survivor benefits kept my family from homelessness and gave my Mother enough money to care for us without any other government help and we kept our home. And boy did we need it. She too worked in a factory and made very little money so the help we received from the government really kept us from poverty. Ryan needs to be confronted about his change of thinking. It was good enough for him, but not so much for others. That needs to be challenged.

  5. NYC Has a good program… They put people in an apartment FIRST.
    And then they star working on their “issues”
    Saves money too

  6. Amazingly, the Housing First Program started under the George W. Bush administration. Everything I’ve read and heard about the program has been positive. I believe Partners in Housing in Indianapolis has, at least, one Housing First Program.

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