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Why Government Becomes the Scapegoat

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The Big Lie

The main problem with this blame-the-government tactic – and with all attempts at scapegoating – is that it is based on a distorted vision of reality. The reality of government is exactly the opposite of what conservatives contend: it is rarely the cause of societal problems and typically functions as a solution to problems. As we saw in another article on this site, “The Forgotten Achievements of Government,” modern American government has taken on a series of large and difficult problems and has in most cases made significant progress in addressing them. And there is actually little evidence that the government is the direct cause of most of the serious social and economic problems we face as a nation. This is why one political commentator, Charles Noble, has called the conservative blame-the-government campaign “the big lie.”

Some of these lies about government are not even very plausible. In the mad rush by anti-state conservatives to blame government for everything, reason and common sense are often thrown out the window. Witness, for example, Reagan’s 1983 confident pronouncement that "We think there is a parallel between federal involvement in education and the decline in profit over recent years."5 No one has yet to make much sense out of this contention.

Other government critics have even tried to blame it for our many environmental problems. The official position of the libertarian Future of Freedom Foundation makes it perfectly clear where they think the fault lies: “Governments are the great destroyers of the environment. In fact, most environmental problems can be traced to public, not private, ownership of resources.”6 And Dick Armey has written that our current health care crisis is entirely the fault of federal tax policy and programs like Medicare and Medicaid. He suggests that if only the government would get out of the way then private health insurers would make sure that nearly everyone, including the poor and elderly, had affordable health insurance – and the cost of health care would be lowered in the process.7 Clearly, no one but a hard-core, right-wing government hater would put much credence to any of these bizarre theories.

But while many of these conservative charges against government are easily dismissed, not all of them are. Some of their accusations have the semblance of plausibility and are taken seriously by many people in the public and the press – and these demand a more detailed refutation. Of course there is not enough room in this article to take on all of these blame-the-government theories – but let’s take a look at one of them. Let’s consider a charge against the government that conservatives believe is particularly strong – where they are convinced that they are right about government being at fault and where they have successfully convinced many others of this as well. It is the contention that misguided government policies are one of the main reasons so many people remain poor in this country.

Does Welfare Cause Poverty?

Poverty has been a remarkably persistent problem in our society. In 1970, the poverty rate was 12.6 percent and in 2008 it was 13.2 percent. So why won’t this problem go away?  Most conservatives have put the blame on government policies. In 1984, Charles Murray published Losing Ground in which he argued that welfare policies, while intended to alleviate poverty, have in fact just made it worse. Welfare payments were so high that they discouraged people from getting jobs. It became economically beneficial to stay on welfare rather than to take a low paying job. Overly generous welfare payments were making people dependent on these programs and trapping them in poverty. His solution: get rid of the major source of the problem. Cut back drastically on welfare, thus forcing people to get jobs and work their way out of poverty.

When the Republicans took over Congress in the mid-1990s, one of their first priorities was to “reform welfare” along these lines. In a landmark 1996 bill, welfare was declared to be no longer an entitlement, and strict time limits and work requirements were imposed on recipients – all designed to discourage people from staying on welfare and forcing them onto the job market. This legislation has come to be celebrated by conservatives as one of the most successful policies coming out of that period. They point out that between 1996 and 2003, the number of people on the welfare rolls dropped by over 60%.

This is pretty impressive. But unfortunately, the effect of this reduction of the welfare rolls on the poverty level was not what Republicans had predicted. If welfare was actually a major cause of persistent poverty, then we should have also seen a dramatic decrease in poverty as millions of people were forced off welfare and onto the job market. But this is precisely what did not happen. The poverty rate did not fall by 60% or 50%. Not even by 40% or 30%. Not by 20%, nor even by 10%. It fell by a measly 8% -- from 13.7% to 12.5% from 1996 to 2003.

How can this be explained? It is simple. Conservatives were wrong about poverty being largely caused by government welfare programs. First, they ignored the fact that most poor people aren’t even on welfare – and that many of them work already. Second, as many scholars of poverty have pointed out, the major causes of poverty in this country are mostly in the economic system. Most people are poor for two reasons: (1) there is a chronic lack of jobs, and (2) many low-level jobs pay wages below the poverty level.

If you can’t get a job, your chances of being poor are quite high. And there is a persistent lack of full-time jobs in our economy. The unemployment rate has traditionally hovered around the 5% to 7% in the U.S. – and of course it is much higher during recessions. But this does not count those who have become so discouraged they are no longer searching for jobs. Moreover, it has been estimated that unemployment would have to fall to around 2% for there to be enough jobs for everyone who wants one.8 So chronic unemployment in our economy remains one of the main causes of poverty.9

But beyond the obstacle of lack of jobs, there is the problem of the quality of jobs that many people do get – and that mire them in poverty. Many workers are trapped in part-time or part-year jobs that do not pay enough to raise them out of poverty. Millions more work at full-time jobs that pay wages so low that they also remain poor. An embarrassing large percentage of American workers, at least 25 percent, receive wages that do not allow their families to enjoy a decent standard of living. One poverty researcher, Mark Rank, found that almost a third of heads of families in the workforce in 1999, in the midst of a strong economy, earned less than $10 an hour, barely enough for a full-time worker to maintain a family of four above the official poverty line.10 In terms of poverty, then, the basic problem has been the chronic inability of our economy to provide the kinds of employment opportunities necessary for people to work their way above the poverty line. As Gordon Lafer has concluded: “There simply are not enough decently paying jobs for the number of people who need them."11

Given the real causes of poverty in this country are located in the economy, it is not hard to see why the Republican effort to slash government welfare rolls has had little impact on this problem. Since Republican lawmakers had the wrong diagnosis of the poverty problem, their policy prescription was misguided as well. Kicking people off of welfare does nothing to create the additional jobs or the better paying jobs that would actually enable people to escape poverty. Interestingly, poverty rates did dip a bit during the economic boom of the late 1990s, when unemployment declined and wages rose a bit. But since 2000, a sputtering economy has meant that the poverty rate has gone back up every year – ballooning to 14.3% in 2009, a result of the severe economic recession that began in 2008. This is just another indication that it is the failures of our economic system, not government welfare policies, that are at the heart of our continuing poverty problems.12


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