You wouldn’t know it by listening to the zealots of any ilk, but most of us, across parties and ideologies, want the same things. For example, you don’t find mainstream Republicans rejecting interstate roads, safety standards for pharmaceuticals, or a federal court system. You won’t find most Democrats claiming they don’t enjoy material comforts, appreciate the entrepreneurial spirit, or want young people to aspire to their highest goals, whether that means becoming an artist or a wealthy CEO.
Most of us, left or right, are neither radical socialists, or robber barons.
It's when we we turn to the question of how to lift millions of poor-but-able adults out of poverty, our viewpoints do start to diverge. What should we expect of the individual, despite their circumstances and external barriers to success? What role should government play? We know that escaping really tough beginnings is statistically unusual. And I would hope most people know that many, many people in living in poverty labor hard to improve their lot - research bears that out as well.
Again extending the benefit of the doubt, I truly believe that most of us, left or right, want as many folks as possible to be happy, healthy, and productive. There is plenty of altruism among every political sector, and there is also a healthy self-interest in seeing the country thrive. So how do we get there?
The conservative “bootstraps” ideal clashes with the liberal “intervention” ideal, and, stoked by opportunistic punditry and entrenched suspicion, animus has flourished. It’s a complex area, and stereotypes have evolved to the point of of mythology. We default to lashing out, with “why can’t these people just get a job??” versus “why do you people hate the poor??” We fall prey to cynical voices, shrieking that heartless conservatives want to eat caviar while hungry babies cry, or that smarmy liberals want feckless thugs to revel in lives of state-sponsored ease.
In reality, it is possible for well-meaning people (to paraphrase the old saying) to differ on how to best teach someone to fish.
Some of the misunderstanding may come from of a lack of awareness about the differences between the kind of “situational poverty” that has come out of the recession, as opposed to the more prevalent “generational poverty” that has existed in the US for well over a century. The most promising remedies to these two very different problems are not the same. Add that to the fact that poverty is an emotional issue, and that our vocabulary about it has been ravaged by cable news and talk radio, and you have ordinary people with opposing viewpoints seeing each other as immoral lunatics.
If we could tone down the demagoguery, we could learn to apply the best aspects of both approaches:
- An authentic emphasis on job-creation and recovery could be applied to help those devastated by the economic collapse.
- Robust federal investment into ravaged communities could ease suffering from chronic poverty, and provide a way out.
While Republicans have been forced by a few into espousing radical theories, support for their classic ideas is widely distributed across ideologies.
Eliminating pointless and outmoded regulations allows businesses to use increased revenue to hire more people.
Tax breaks for small business encourage new ventures and expansion of existing operations.
Federally-funded social programs should be accountable and transparent, and evaluated for effectiveness.
Without the right formatting, ample assistance programs run the risk of encouraging dependency.
Democrats have been pushed to fight tooth and nail to protect basic entitlements, so their demands may have come to sound strident and one-dimensional. But the desire is not to simply truck in endless supplies of free goods and services to poor communities, achieving nothing but stasis.
The desire is to provide training, skills-building, support services, encouragement, and access to opportunity, to people who aren’t getting it elsewhere.
The idea is that people naturally want to better and support themselves.
That social programs are an investment.
That by funding the teaching of literacy, job skills, effective parenting, family-budgeting and health management, the country will profit from a stronger and more productive citizenry.
In any case, we’ll need to re-learn how to work together as soon as possible, because the country can only afford so much fish.