While the Census Bureau reports that in 2016 some 12.7% of Americans lived in poverty, it is impossible to reconcile this poverty rate, which has remained virtually unchanged over the last 50 years, with the fact that total inflation-adjusted government-transfer payments to low-income families have risen steadily. Transfers targeted to low-income families increased in real dollars from an average of $3,070 per person in 1965 to $34,093 in 2016.
.. Compared with what they pay in Social Security taxes, the lowest quintile of earners can receive as much as 10 times the lifetime benefits received by the highest quintile of earners and three times as much as the middle quintile... The measured poverty rate has remained virtually unchanged only because the Census Bureau doesn’t count most of the transfer payments created since the declaration of the War on Poverty. The bureau measures poverty using what it calls “money income,” which includes earned income and some transfer payments such as Social Security and unemployment insurance.
But it excludes food stamps, Medicaid, the portion of Medicare going to low-income families, Children’s Health Insurance, the refundable portion of the earned-income tax credit, at least 87 other means-tested federal payments to individuals, and most means-tested state payments. If government counted these missing $1.5 trillion in annual transfer payments, the poverty rate would be less than 3%.
Choosing between a focus on race or class is the wrong choice to begin with... There’s a lot of discussion about how far left the Democratic Party should go these days. Is it destroying its electoral chances when its members call for a single-payer health plan or abolishing ICE?
That’s an important question, but the most important question is what story is the Democratic Party telling?
.. As Alasdair MacIntyre argued many years ago, you can’t know what to do unless you know what story you are a part of. Story is more important than policies.
.. The story Donald Trump tells is that we good-hearted, decent people of Middle America have been betrayed by stupid elites who screw us and been threatened by foreigners who are out to get us.
.. Back in the 1980s, the Democrats told two different stories. One was the compassion story associated with Mario Cuomo and Ted Kennedy: Too many Americans are poor, marginalized and left behind. We must care for our brothers and sisters because we are all one family.
.. The other was the brainpower/meritocracy story associated with Gary Hart and later the New Democrats: Americans are masters at innovation. We must use our best minds to come up with innovative plans to solve our problems and head into a new technological century.
I don’t hear those two stories much anymore. The Democrats are emphasizing fighting grit these days, not compassion or technocratic expertise.
Today’s Democrats tell two other stories.
- The first is the traditional socialist story associated with Bernie Sanders: America is rived by the class conflict. The bankers and the oligarchs are exploiting the middles. We need a fighter who will go out and battle concentrated economic power.
- The second is the multicultural story: American history has been marked by systems of oppression. Those who have been oppressed — women, African-Americans, Latinos — need to stand together and fight for justice.
.. Racial justice socialism seems to be the story of the contemporary left. This story effectively paints Trump as the villain on all fronts, and Democrats do face the distinct problem of how to run against a bully like Trump. But is it good politics for the entire Democratic Party to embrace it?
.. no national Democrat has ever fully embraced this story successfully. In fact, Democrats like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama went to great lengths to assure people they were not embracing this story.
- .. They did because Americans trust business more than the state, so socialism has never played well.
- They did it because if you throw race into your economic arguments you end up turning off potential allies in swing states like Wisconsin, Iowa and Pennsylvania.
- They did it because if you throw economics into your race arguments you end up dividing your coalitions on those issues.
In brief, Democrats have stayed away from this narrative because the long hoped-for alliance between oppressed racial minorities and the oppressed white working class has never materialized, and it looks very far from materializing now.
.. for 100 years, Democrats have tended to win with youthful optimism and not anger and indignation.
.. The Democrats who have won nationally almost all ran on generational change — on tired old America versus the possibilities of new America:
- F.D.R.’s New Deal,
- J.F.K.’s New Frontier,
- Bill Clinton’s bridge to the 21st century and
- Obama’s hope and change.
If I had to advise on a Democratic narrative I’d start with three premises:
- First, by 2020 everybody will be exhausted by the climate of negativism and hostility.
- Second, the core long-term fear is American decline; are we losing our mojo?
- Third, communities and nations don’t come together when they talk about their problems; they come together when they do something on behalf of their children.
Maybe the right narrative could be rebuilding social mobility for the young: America is failing its future. We need to rally around each other to build the families, communities, schools, training systems and other structures to make sure the next generation surpasses this one. People are doing this at the local level, and we need a series of unifying projects to make national progress.
.. This story pushes people toward reconciliation. It is future-oriented.
Four years ago, on the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, House Republicans led by Paul Ryan issued a report declaring that war a failure. Poverty, they asserted, hadn’t fallen. Therefore, they concluded, we must slash spending on the poor.
.. it calls for the widespread imposition of work requirements for Medicaid, food stamps and other programs. But that would have the effect of sharply reducing those programs’ coverage.
.. This decline in coverage wouldn’t be the result of large numbers of people earning their way out of poverty. Instead, many poor Americans would, for a variety of reasons — poor health, job instability for low-wage workers, daunting paperwork imposed on those least able to deal with it — find it impossible to meet the requirements, and be denied aid despite remaining poor.
.. whatever the evidence, Republicans always reach the same policy conclusion. Was the war on poverty a failure? Let’s stop helping the poor. Was it a success? Let’s stop helping the poor.
.. And let’s be clear: We’re talking about the whole party, not just the Trump administration. In particular, Republican governors are fanatical about cutting benefits for their lower-income residents.
.. In Maine, voters overwhelmingly approved an initiative to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. But Gov. Paul LePage has refused to implement the expansion — a vast majority of which would be paid for with federal funds — despite a court order, and has declared that he’s willing to go to jail rather than see his constituents get health care.
The power is in Rogers’s radical kindness at a time when public kindness is scarce. It’s as if the pressure of living in a time such as ours gets released in that theater as we’re reminded that, oh yes, that’s how people can be.
Moral elevation gains strength when it is scarce.
.. Mister Rogers was a lifelong Republican and an ordained Presbyterian minister. His show was an expression of the mainline Protestantism that was once the dominating morality in American life.
.. Once, as Tom Junod described in a profile for Esquire, Rogers met a 14-year-old boy whose cerebral palsy left him sometimes unable to walk or talk. Rogers asked the boy to pray for him.
The boy was thunderstruck. He had been the object of prayers many times, but nobody had asked him to pray for another. He said he would try since Mister Rogers must be close to God and if Mister Rogers liked him he must be O.K.
Junod complimented Rogers on cleverly boosting the boy’s self-esteem, but Rogers didn’t look at the situation that way at all: “Oh, heavens no, Tom! I didn’t ask him for his prayers for him; I asked for me. I asked him because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God. I asked him because I wanted his intercession.”
And here is the radicalism that infused that show: that
- the child is closer to God than the adult;
- that the sick are closer than the healthy;
- that the poor are closer than the rich and
- the marginalized closer than the celebrated.
Rogers often comforted children on the show and taught them in simple terms, but the documentary shows how he did so with a profound respect for the dignity of each child that almost rises to veneration. You see his visceral disgust for shows that don’t show respect — that dump slime on children, that try to entertain them with manic violence.
In the gospel of Fred Rogers, children are our superiors in the way
- they trust each person they meet, the way
- they lack guile,
- the way a child can admit simple vulnerability.
Rogers was drawing on a long moral tradition, that the last shall be first. It wasn’t just Donald Trump who reversed that morality, though he does represent a cartoonish version of the idea that winners are better than losers, the successful are better than the weak. That morality got reversed long before Trump came on the scene, by an achievement-oriented success culture, by a culture that swung too far from humble and earnest caritas.
Rogers was singing from a song sheet now lost, a song sheet that once joined conservative evangelicals and secular progressives. The song sheet may be stacked somewhere in a drawer in the national attic, ready for reuse once again.