We Need to Change Our Rhetoric on Poverty

A view of Panama City, the capital.

Politics, Panama Papers, and poor people. 

Followers of this blog will note that sometimes I seem more conservative and at others I seem solidly liberal. I think I literally wake up some mornings annoyed with one group, others I’m pissed at the other. And doubtless due in some part to the election antics, lately I’ve had a lot of mornings seriously ticked off at conservatives. I can start with a quote from one of the “exceptional” 2016 Republican candidates.

“Now, when you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer. ” – John Kasich, on expanding Medicaid in his state

As a Christian, this is some of the more authentic Christian rhetoric I’ve seen (although let’s not kid ourselves: rhetoric is rhetoric, and everything is for votes or money–not to be cynical). But rarely is this heard on the right; take Paul Ryan’s “makers” and “takers” soundbyte from 2012:

“Do you want the American idea of an opportunity society with a safety net where you can take a risk, start a business, make a difference, succeed and be honored for being successful?” Ryan said at a June 15, 2012 fundraiser. “Or do we go down the path the president is proposing — a social welfare state, a cradle-to-the-grave society where we have more takers than makers.”

But–and here’s my first point of three–even the Speaker of the House, somewhat amazingly, has taken it back, due to either the growing influence of the Trump base or maybe like, real life experiences:

I appreciate that a politician can get up there and admit they made a mistake and that we’re willing to move forward in a constructive fashion. He’s at least setting a good example for his party. It doesn’t make sense for a party so apparently centered on faith to speak with so little sympathy for the poor and oppressed.

Second point, and it’s anecdotal, to be sure. Just about everyone I’ve ever met, of every socioeconomic class, has exploited “the system” in some way to maximize their personal benefit. I’ve met people in D.C. using food stamps and WIC. In my upper middle class neighborhood, people took advantage of low interest rates, parents’ connections for jobs. Students take advantage of whatever financial aid they can squeeze out of a college and the government. My own family took advantage of Obamacare, namely the ability to keep your kids on your health insurance until age 26. I was privileged, in a sense, to have a dad who taught computer science and who emphasized programming skills, which helped me get ahead. It’s not necessarily wrong to take advantage of the “system,” which is another way of saying benefits of policies in place and privilege–it’s not even unusual.

Which brings me to the third and final point. If the Panama Papers show anything, it’s that the global wealthy elite do the same exact thing. The most telling aspect is in the Guardian‘s Q&A:

Are all people who use offshore structures crooks?

No. Using offshore structures is entirely legal. There are many legitimate reasons for doing so. Business people in countries such as Russia and Ukraine typically put their assets offshore to defend them from “raids” by criminals, and to get around hard currency restrictions. Others use offshore for reasons of inheritance and estate planning.

Entirely legal. And that of course is the defense of many of the super-rich at this very moment. But give people in developing countries some credit; their money may not be entirely safe in more traditional deposits. The very wealthy are exploiting what’s available to them to maximize their personal benefit, not entirely unlike the people I mention above.

This isn’t to exonerate anyone associated with the Panama Papers leak. (The Guardian’s next question is “Are some of them crooks? Yes.”) In fact, it shows that the rich ought to empathize more with the “takers” than they usually do, especially on the American right. And I’m willing to bet that the tax avoidance, the payments to special accountants, and the diversion of resources in these countries to an excessively large financial sector contribute to a huge welfare loss to society. (For reference, financial services make up about 17% of Panama’s GDP, comparable to the U.S.) Maybe that loss is well over the loss from a million people scraping a little off the top on Social Security payments and unemployment benefits.

File:Panama Export Treemap.png
Oh Panama, why couldn’t you be happy exporting antibiotics and bananas?

”My entire life, I’ve watched politicians bragging about how poor they are, how they came from nothing, how poor their parents and grandparents were. And I said to myself, if they can stay so poor for so many generations, maybe this isn’t the kind of person we want to be electing to higher office. How smart can they be? They’re morons.” – Donald Trump (1999)

We ought to think more about relieving poverty than whose fault it is. Personally I think there are fair points from both conservatives (growth should improve opportunity) and liberals (people need assistance to have a shot) on how to do this. I’m not arguing about the right policy, though. We need to drop the way it’s discussed.

On one of my early trips to India, I saw like, real poverty. Beggars everywhere. Shoddily built homes. People missing limbs just milling on the street with zero support. This is perhaps an extreme example. But I don’t know if being poor is necessarily the poor’s fault. We should stop resorting to blaming them, and moreover we should note the ways in which we are all similar.


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