Monday, March 03, 2003

I’m not heartless… No, Really…

I’ve been re-reading my two posts on the new round of welfare reform currently being promoted by the Bush Administration that requires more work from welfare recipients. I’ve realized that in those posts that I have never directly stated my biggest objection to the welfare state. I’ve also realized that, without stating my prime objection, I would appear to some to be a heartless, miserly bastard. So… here is my fundamental objection to the governmentally coerced redistribution of wealth in general, and welfare in particular.

It does not work.

If the system was effective at moving poor people off of the welfare roles and into the workforce; if the programs helped create independent, confident individuals instead of increasing the number of welfare vassals growing more and more dependent on the system; if the self-sustaining bureaucracy of “human services” workers did not act as a crippling, calcifying force that makes effective reform unattainable; in short, if the damned thing worked… I could support it.

As well intentioned as it is -- and I truly believe that welfare and most other social engineering (no matter how misguided) is truly intended to help people -- it is a failure. It is not a failure because it is under funded. It is a failure because it prejudges and underestimates the individuals caught in the system, and human beings in general. It is a failure because it objectifies the people it claims to serve, pigeonholing them into ethnic and cultural groups predefined by the system as oppressed.

First, the system presumes the inability of a poor person to accept their individual behavior as the greatest single factor keeping them in poverty. Second, the welfare culture, although it pays lip service, does not believe that the “underprivileged” can change that behavior. This is not surprising, because if welfare recipients do not bear the primary responsibility for their plight, then changing their behavior is a moot point. Third, the system is predicated on the idea that poor people are poor because someone is intentionally keeping them down.

You see, people on welfare are victims. Hey, it’s easy to justify taking care of people you see as victims. It’s much more difficult to envision ever getting them to take care of themselves. Unless, of course if society changes first… and there it is… these people cannot pull themselves up. Even without all of the hobbling, Byzantine, bureaucratic paralysis endemic in public sector programs, the current culture of vicimhood, so prevalent in the mindset of people on the left, would doom welfare as a ticket up and out of failure.

WE are the ones keeping these people down. WE are the ones that are responsible for this poverty in the midst of prosperity. It’s because of our bigotry… or our resistance to cultural diversity… or simply our “insensitivity”. It’s because of the cultural bias of standardized testing. It’s because of white conspiracies surrounding AIDS or drugs. It’s because, due in large part to our conversion to a service economy, businesses prefering to hire people who can speak Standard English. It’s because, (since the average business owner does not understand the righteous anger caused by struggle against oppression) employers want employees to show up to work without a chip on their shoulder.

Because those on welfare are victims, it is not truly necessary for them to change their behavior. They shouldn’t HAVE to change. The blame is externalized to the “other” and his (I choose the gender of this pronoun intentionally…) attitude. And who is the “other”. That would be white, straight, male, moneyed, powerful oppressors.

Hey, man, it’s someone else’s fault. I may have made bad decisions, but it wasn’t my fault. The system (or the “man”, or racism, or… whatever other external deceased pale penis person force) was to blame. I’m trying to be good. I’m trying really hard. Yeah, I stopped going to that typing class, but it was really hard and boring. And I could tell that the teacher didn’t respect me because I’m black… or a woman… or… you get the idea.

What galled me most about yesterday’s Rekha Basu column was that very lack of faith she has in ability of human beings (particularly women) to take charge of their lives. That is the very attitude that enables girls and young women on welfare to rationalize that having a baby is their only source of power and control. By subscribing to this postmodern, determinist view of human nature, Rekha and the rest of the crypto-Marxists help doom the very people she claims to champion to a life of despair and poverty. She and her culture of victimization, enable the kind of self righteous, self defeating behavior that helps to keep people out of the market and in “the system”.

No, liberals are not the optimists they claim to be. They share with the Religious Right an almost Calvinist belief in a kind of societal original sin. Granted, it’s original sin with a twist; the American Puritanical tradition turned at a 45 degree oblique. In the neo-Marxist view of original sin, the “natural” state of mankind divides humans into two camps: a small, oppressive, hegemonic minority and the great masses of the oppressed. But the belief that the individual cannot free him or herself without the assistance of some “divine” intervention (be it Jesus Christ or Karl Marx) is common to both.

Here’s the true irony. The perennial underclass that is riding the turbulent tide of welfare reform really ARE victims. However, they are not the victims of Capitalist oppressors and free market profiteers. Rather, they are victimized by the Left and its intransigence in abandoning the notion that society can be engineered into their mythical Marxist Utopia. These people are the walking wounded of the culture war.

Until around the turn of the last century, there was a concept of “the deserving poor”. The idea was that there were people who, despite a true effort to take care of their own lives and the lives of their families, ran into terrible circumstances. Yes, there are times when an individual or family, despite doing everything right, ends up in financial straights. We should help these people. I would submit, however that private relief and charities can do the job more effectively than state sponsored welfare.

However, I am not a proponent of pure Libertarianism. I think that there is a place for public relief such as unemployment insurance and short-term supplemental benefits. Working people can fall on to hard times. I also believe that we owe it to the people who are entrapped in the welfare system need our help to get them out. They are the result of a failed social experiment. If in the short term, it costs more money to lift them out… so be it. We must be responsible for cleaning up our own mess. But the final goal must be to end the system as it exists today.

What frustrates and angers me most about victim feminists such as Rickie Solinger and her acolytes like Rekha is that, when it comes to the individual human spirit, they are pessimists and defeatists. I am, even in the depths of middle age, an optimist. I really believe in the possibilities and the power of the individual life well lived. Rekha is perpetually in Selma, Alabama in 1964, trapped in amber and viewing the world through the yellow, jaundiced lens of victim-based politics. Sometimes I think I should not be so hard on her. It must be a bummer for her to wake up and get out of bed every morning.


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