This time of year, you look twice at the sketchy drug addict blocking the sidewalk in front of Starbucks. You give a second thought to the overly bundled elderly woman waiting in line at the food bank. You wonder what life would be like if that palsied kid in the trailer had medical attention.
Americans are a generous people — so it is always said. But our generosity comes with moral judgments: There’s a thin line, in the minds of many, between the poor who deserve help and those who should get off their butts.
Similarly with the wealthy. Do entitled rich kids who would otherwise be parking cars without Daddy’s help — think Donald Trump Jr. and his brother Eric — deserve to inherit a vast estate without paying taxes on their unearned largesse?
These are old arguments, dating to Dickens’ heartless Ebenezer Scrooge and the noble Cratchit family. But once again, these narratives are at the heart of enormous changes about to take place in how we treat the rich and the poor. The assumptions are fraught with fiction.
Let’s start with the most deserving and least to blame — children. About 9 million American kids, in families that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid and not enough to afford their own coverage, can now see a doctor under the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Two million of those children have chronic health conditions — epilepsy, asthma and diabetes among the ailments. The program has always had bipartisan support. So why are the working poor now getting notices telling them their kids may soon be cut off?
Funding for the program technically expired Sept. 30 and it has yet to be renewed. The politicians running the asylum in Washington say they plan to pay for it, but just haven’t gotten around to it yet. They’re busy with other things — an enormous corporate tax cut and breaks for the lobbying class. Priorities.
It was during a recent discussion of children’s health care that we got a taste of the moral fantasies of the insular political elites. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah — who, to his credit, helped create the children’s health program with Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., in 1997 — went on a rant against the poor. He was not specifically talking about children, or the program that he has pledged to renew. He was going after a straw man that has been around since Ronald Reagan’s Cadillac-driving welfare cheat.
“I have a rough time wanting to spend billions and trillions of dollars to help people who won’t help themselves — won’t lift a finger — and expect the federal government to do everything,” he said. Hatch didn’t define this indolent recipient of unmerited trillions, but surely he was not attacking agribusiness owners who get paid not to grow things.
President Donald Trump claims personal knowledge of the undeserving poor. “I know people that work three jobs and they live next to somebody who doesn’t work at all,” he said in Missouri last month. The sponger “is making more money and doing better than the person that’s working his ass off.”
Wow. Sounds awful. And almost certainly not true. Trump did not cite the source of his tale of two households. And it’s doubtful, in the friendless circle of clueless rich people with whom he shares Diet Cokes, that he actually “knows people” living next to welfare bums.
Of the nearly 44 million people getting some help to buy groceries with food stamps — the largest of the nonentitlement federal welfare programs — most of them work, after you deduct for the disabled and those too old or young to hold a job. The benefit amounts to about $1.40 per person per meal. Tough to eat one of Trump’s steaks on that amount of change.
As we know, truth is as disposable to Trump as one of his junk food wrappers. Better to look at the motive behind the lie. The president used his story of the mooch next door to kick off a campaign to punish the poor. The tax cuts, heralding a $1.5 trillion increase in the deficit, are hugely unpopular and have to be paid for somehow. Shifting attention to those parasitic bums takes pressure off the rich.
Speaking of which, we now know the real reason, thanks to Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, why Republicans want to repeal the estate tax. All the scare stories about family farms and third-generation businesses going under have been proved to be as mythic as the subsidized slacker.
Andrew Carnegie, in his famous “Gospel of Wealth” essay, said of the estate tax, “Of all forms of taxation, this seems the wisest.” But in Grassley’s view, the tax hits the virtuous “as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.” Well said, Mr. Potter.
Timothy Egan worked for 18 years as a writer for The New York Times, first as the Pacific Northwest correspondent, then as a national enterprise reporter.