Poverty Is A Policy Choice

Tumultuous times offer us an opportunity to revisit previous assumptions about the way the world works–and these are definitely tumultuous times. This blog has considered the discomfort most of us feel witnessing elements of our society that weren’t always so obvious: the increasing displays of racial animus, widespread visual evidence that the policeman may not always be our friend, the disregard for others displayed by the “in your face” mask and vaccine refusers… and of course, we’ve had to deal with the pandemic’s upending of so much of what we used to think of as our normal lives.

The economic realities as we emerge from that pandemic are also challenging some unthinking assumptions about wealth and poverty.

Once more, Ezra Klein gets to the crux of the issue.

The American economy runs on poverty, or at least the constant threat of it. Americans like their goods cheap and their services plentiful and the two of them, together, require a sprawling labor force willing to work tough jobs at crummy wages. On the right, the barest glimmer of worker power is treated as a policy emergency, and the whip of poverty, not the lure of higher wages, is the appropriate response.

Reports that low-wage employers were having trouble filling open jobs sent Republican policymakers into a tizzy and led at least 25 Republican governors — and one Democratic governor — to announce plans to cut off expanded unemployment benefits early. Chipotle said that it would increase prices by about 4 percent to cover the cost of higher wages, prompting the National Republican Congressional Committee to issue a blistering response: “Democrats’ socialist stimulus bill caused a labor shortage, and now burrito lovers everywhere are footing the bill.” The Trumpist outlet The Federalist complained, “Restaurants have had to bribe current and prospective workers with fatter paychecks to lure them off their backsides and back to work.”

Klein considers recent proposals to eliminate poverty via a “negative income tax”–very similar to the one proposed several years ago by none other than Milton Friedman. Unlike a guaranteed annual income, this subsidy would phase out as incomes rose, so it would be  less costly than a universal benefit. But as Klein observes, the problem isn’t really the cost.

The real political problem for a guaranteed income isn’t the costs, but the benefits. A policy like this would give workers the power to make real choices. They could say no to a job they didn’t want, or quit one that exploited them. They could, and would, demand better wages, or take time off to attend school or simply to rest. When we spoke, Hamilton tried to sell it to me as a truer form of capitalism. “People can’t reap the returns of their effort without some baseline level of resources,” he said. “If you lack basic necessities with regards to economic well-being, you have no agency. You’re dictated to by others or live in a miserable state.”

But those in the economy with the power to do the dictating profit from the desperation of low-wage workers. One man’s misery is another man’s quick and affordable at-home lunch delivery.

Klein reminds readers that America is full of hardworking people who are kept poor by very low wages and harsh circumstance–people who want a job but can’t find one, or who can only find jobs that are “cruel in ways that would appall anyone sitting comfortably behind a desk.”

We know the absence of child care and affordable housing and decent public transit makes work, to say nothing of advancement, impossible for many. We know people lose jobs they value because of mental illness or physical disability or other factors beyond their control. We are not so naïve as to believe near-poverty and joblessness to be a comfortable condition or an attractive choice.

Klein also reminds us that “following the money” tells us what our priorities really are–that we always find money to pay for the things we value.

What America spends its national wealth on doesn’t reflect well on those values. We’ve spent trillions of dollars on wars in the Middle East and on tax cuts for the wealthy, and billions subsidizing fossil fuel companies and factory farms.

As Klein says, it’s within our power to wipe out poverty. It simply isn’t among our priorities.


  1. Exactly! It’s not a priority to end poverty. You never hear about some fruit picker losing their job to immigrants! Let me just say, Americans better wake up and work together. First they need to stop the hate fest from the right wing/Fox Spews/Federalist society and stop the lies from the orange clown. There needs to be some sort of campaign to stop the election lies and get the right wing to have a “Come to Jesus” epiphany that sets the country back on track. Otherwise, you’ll continue your slide into third world status of poverty, homelessness, healthcare collapse and dismissal of world power. There’s always money for wars and politicians but none for actual citizens. I want to come back and live but why would I? Someone talk me down.

  2. Ezra is wrong about it “being within our power” because that would assume we were a democracy, and the press was free, and the government served the people.

    However, none of those things are true.

    We are an oligarchy which means power flows from the top-down. It’s very oppressive, and it is the cause of all our problems socially and economically.

    A great example, I’ve written several articles about Indiana’s unemployment benefits which got cut off on 6/19 by Governor Holcomb and Fred Payne. They both got sued, and Judge John Hanley ruled in Marion County on Friday to reinstate the benefits. It still hasn’t been done.

    What kind of “government for the people” kicks people off a benefit already paid in advance by the federal government under the “CARES” Act?

    Yes, this is money sent by the federal government to the state to pay for the benefits through Labor Day and the cost to administer those benefits. Our Governor said, “Nope, we need fast food workers ASAP, so shove it, we’re not paying them to stay home.”

    Legal aid filed the lawsuit, so God Bless those folks and the judge for calling out the governor. Meanwhile, the douchebag Todd Rokita said, “We’re going to appeal the decision.”

    Hey tough guys, why don’t you do your jobs and hold the polluters in Indiana accountable? Why don’t you force your idiot followers to get a vaccine to protect the public?

    What makes it worse is Bernie Sanders told Marty Walsh, the Secretary of the US Dept of Labor, to tell the Republican governors they didn’t have a choice but to administer the benefits. He was too cowardly.

    The journalist who covered the story at NPR told me on Twitter, “There is no path forward for those people being kicked off unemployment early.”

    Once again, when our federal, state, and local government have all sold their power to the Oligarchy, what we get is a sham. The press sold out decades ago when the owners of the printing presses sold out their power to the advertisers in town.

    It’s not just the people in poverty–it’s everybody outside the oligarchy who have cowardly acquiesced to the power dynamic within your institutions. I don’t know which will come first, the UBI or the guillotines.

  3. In Chris Harman’s great, thundering tome, “A People’s History of the World”, he points out that workers have been exploited and enslaved since the invention of agriculture, the surprising benefit of surplus and the subsequent invention of economics. So, to view today’s labor issues is another way of saying, “Nothing new here.”

    The very tenets of capitalism dictate that free labor, i.e., slavery, is the optimum condition for maximum profits. If somebody controls the food, he/she can control the labor that makes the food, by denying those workers the very substance that keeps them alive. Sorry. It really is that simple at its core.

    This topic sort of dovetails with yesterday’s blog on social Darwinism. Republicans, of course, are all in with slavery, low wages and labor exploitation. If the word “socialism” didn’t exist for them to misrepresent, they’d find something else. No political party in the history of the world, besides National Socialism, has lied, cheated and exploited the very people who make them rich than Republicans.

    Todd keeps whining about the liberal media being liars (This presumes that only he has a handle on the truth.), but it is the retrograde, right-wing media that keeps trumpeting our earliest, and most despicable traits of social fratricide.

  4. Why so many people hurt by these policies and priorities vote for the people enforcing them is a continuing mystery to me. Dependable lies and dog whistles about “those” [generally Black or brown] people or family values or America’s supposedly class-free society meet the occasion, I suppose.

  5. I’ve said my piece before but, again, so long as we allow companies to buy competitors and create monopsonistic labor markets (and also allow them to use gag clauses and non-competes with employees) we’ll have low wages, high prices and high profits. This is not a flaw in our system but (as pointed out above) a design feature.

  6. Chipotle pays its CEO over $16 million in total compensation, so the question I have is do they really need to raise prices 4%? They could just take a couple millions from their CEO compensation and distribute it to their employees. I’m betting he could still get by on as little as $10 million per year.

  7. Just like so many things, people are terrible at estimating risks and impacts, so while a 4% increase at a fast food chain makes headlines and scares people, those low wage jobs and companies that employ those low wage workers only make up about 2% of the total workforce. So the impact on the total economy is 2% of the 4% increase.

    In addition, the states that have ended the Federal unemployment benefits early are NOT seeing people return to the workforce, so there are other factors hold people back besides the extra money. I am sad Indiana is turning down millions of dollars in Federal money for what seems like no evidenced based reason. If they had just waited a week or two to see what the effect was in other states, we would have Hoosiers still spending that extra money in the Indiana economy instead of making people suffer for a political point. The point is made and too few people will realize they were hurt by the very politicians they voted into office.

  8. Our Constitution and other laws at least legally guarantees we are all equal under the Law.

    Your birth parents status within the economic system determines your opportunity in life. If you are lucky enough to be born into the 1%, all the family wealth will be at your disposal, with that wealth comes contacts within the circle of the 1% and politicians and various sycophants eager to please their paymasters . It is like the old royal aristocracy of Europe.

    Attempts to improve the opportunities of the proles here in the U.S.A., like single payer, universal health care, free college, trade school tuition, eliminating tax loopholes is met by bitter resistance.

  9. What I miss about earlier times is that Unions had more power, and corporations and the wealthy paid more in taxes. Ayn Rand’s objectivism supports greed and monopolies that leads to an oligarchy. That oligarchy supports those with wealth and power, not the laborers of our country.

    My neighbor who is an electrician told me he works 16 hours/day due to a labor shortage. I have heard on NPR that carpentry, plumbing, mechanics, and other skilled trades don’t have much prestige. And yet we badly need people with these skills to help support our infrastructure.

    Those who support policies that maintain the status quo and the inequities in wealth do not, in my opinion,have a reverence for life nor do they believe in the inherent worth and dignity of each person. If they embraced those values, they would have to stop hoarding their wealth. They would have to address the inequities in health care and system racism.

    I can only hope that the “labor shortage” forces employers to offer people higher wages. Even those who work at “Dollar Stores” are working hard. And what do they have to show for their efforts?

    Oh yes, America has a caste system just like India. We even have untouchables i.e. the homeless. It seems to me the caste system is very entrenched.

    I wonder if anyone has ideas to liberate us from this caste system i.e. a guaranteed income.

  10. As I often lament, wage and wealth inequality (other than the continuing effects of Trumpism) is our numero uno domestic issue. The national minimum wage of $7.25 per hour established in 2009 is still with us, which explains much of the stratospheric Dow. Money that should have been paid to labor wound up instead in shareholders’ dividends, executive compensation, capital gains treatment of plainly ordinary income for hedge and equity funds etc., not to mention that if such unpaid monies were paid as they were pre-Reagan it would have had a very positive effect on aggregate demand, the sole arbiter of economic growth.

    It is not just money that the rich and corporate class wishes to wield in this labor-management equation; it is power. Keep ’em poor and union-less via state right to work laws and watch those bottom lines explode!

    The good news (I think and hope) is that labor after more than a year of poverty and death while playing hermit (and with some government largesse) has decided that there are more important things in life than continuing to play peon for the rich and corporate class and are quitting their “jobs” for better ones or whatever the fates decide. I consider the ensuing lack of labor to be an expression of individual unionization that state legislatures cannot control with their ridiculously named “right to work” laws and the only remaining means of ending or at least reducing the evil of wage and wealth inequality, a system that vastly overpays capital for its contribution to the economy while vastly underpaying labor for its contribution.

  11. Republicans seem to take some perverse pleasure in pounding on those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Poor people will not have access to abortions (the rich always will) which seems to satisfy the Republican need for feeling morally superior. The disadvantaged, almost by definition, will not have access to jobs that lift them from poverty since Republicans wish to save their constituents from the inconvenience of paying a living wage. Poor people do not have access to schools that might lift them from poverty since schools are largely supported by property taxes. Homeless people will not have access to affordable housing even though it might prove less expensive than dealing with those sleeping under bridges. Poor people are unable to afford healthy meals thanks to resistance to placing supermarkets in low income neighborhoods. Low wage workers were indispensable during the pandemic because we still wanted our garbage picked up and our foods processed so they suffered disproportionately. Jobs that once provided acceptable levels of sustenance to workers have moved to China, etc.,(making manufacturers wealthier) so many who were formerly making it have descended into the lower wage classes. Guns are not selling fast enough to satisfy Republicans, so they frighten low wage earners into buying more by lying about their need to protect themselves from government. Race is at the heart of many of these problems, so Republicans pass laws making it more difficult to discuss, let alone legislate about, systemic racism.

    Yes this list is endless, just like the Republican desire to exploit low wage earners by giving them no choices in work or in life options. Meanwhile, Republicans claim they are doing God’s work, which ranks, on the liar scale, with Trump’s proclamations about last November’s elections. Fairness and kindness are so thoroughly missing from Republican discussions of social problems that they no longer seem to understand the concepts or to consider the associated problems worth addressing.

    Sadly, this seemingly partisan screed is based far more on facts than on emotions.

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