fresh voices from the front lines of change







If there's one thing we've learned from the whining of the plutocrats in recent years it's that these wealthy elites truly believe they not only work harder than the rest of us but that they are actually better people with higher moral values. How else can one explain the fact that they have so much money?

I have written about this many times, most recently in this piece discussing how the aristocratic concept of noblesse oblige is making a big comeback. But until today, I hadn't realized that it is literally being reinstituted under the leadership of Paul Ryan. This major piece by Arthur Delaney goes deep into Ryan's new "poverty" tour. This little excerpt speaks to my point:

"If you're driving from the suburb to the sports arena downtown by these blighted neighborhoods, you can't just say, 'I'm paying my taxes, government's got to fix that.' You need to get involved," Ryan said on the radio show. "You need to get involved yourself, whether through a good mentor program, or some religious charity, whatever it is to make a difference. And that's how we help resuscitate our culture."

Ryan's comment could have come straight from the late 1800s, an era of rapid industrialization, robber barons and unrest known as the Gilded Age.

The financial panic of 1873 triggered a worldwide depression. Bank failures led to widespread layoffs, and welfare historians have documented increasing demands for private and public poor relief at the local level. Concern rose about tramps roaming from city to city to soak up whatever charity they could find. Welfare reformers at the time fought to stop the handouts, which they said only exacerbated tramping.

"Next to alcohol, and perhaps alongside it, the most pernicious fluid is indiscriminate soup," one reformer said in the late 1870s, according to historian Walter I. Trattner's 1974 book, "From Poor Law to Welfare State." Another said, "It is not bread the poor need, it is soul; it is not soup, it is spirit."

Ryan channeled the spirit and the language of these reformers when he told the Conservative Political Action Conference in March, "What the Left is offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul."

In the 19th century, local governments worked alongside private charities to provide an ad-hoc patchwork of poor relief. Poorhouses, or "indoor relief," served as the main alternative to handouts. The institutions varied greatly over time, but in general poorhouse inmates received food and shelter in exchange for control of their lives.

As tramp fears escalated, a "scientific charity" movement arose to coordinate and stifle "outdoor relief," the nickname for assistance not given within poorhouse walls. Hundreds of charity organizing societies sprang up across the country, and government-funded relief ended in more than a dozen cities.

Instead of handing out cash, members of these societies, calling themselves "friendly visitors," would go into poor people's houses and investigate their claims of destitution. Often the wives of wealthy businessmen, they sought to help fill the souls of the poor.

This reminds me of someone I knew who used to give a hundred bucks a month to his father to help with expenses. And every time he visited he would go through the house, including the refrigerator and cupboards, searching for items he thought were luxuries and then berating his poor dad for spending money not his own on things this man disapproved of. He would see beer in the fridge or some Chinese take-out in the garbage and instruct his father that he was not allowed to buy those. (Money being fungible and all, he claimed that it was his hundred dollars that went toward these wasteful vices.) There was, needless to say, no question that the old fellow could not get a new TV set or a computer. As long as his son was giving him this pittance, he was required to live without any kind of entertainment.

This is the real point of noblesse oblige: control. You give up your agency when you take money from these individuals --- you live at the pleasure of and by the grace of your "betters."

The irony of all this is that it's the allegedly liberty-loving right that's proposing privatized paternalism as the answer for poverty. Sure, they say, there are some people who probably deserve some government help --- the disabled, for instance.

[O]thers, Woodson argued, have calculated that low-wage work will compensate barely better than welfare. And then there are the people who constantly make terrible life decisions.

"Giving no-strings assistance to this group enables them to continue their self-destructive lifestyles and injures with the helping hand," Woodson said. This category of poor people, he believes, needs a more paternalistic type of intervention.

Gilded Age charity organizers similarly obsessed over the dichotomy between the deserving and the undeserving poor. Some kept meticulous records of their findings, which were based on the field work of friendly visitors.

In 1883 for instance, almost 900 volunteers for Boston's Associated Charities visited 2,000 families, ultimately finding 18 percent of all applicants "worthy of continuous relief" and 23 percent "worthy of temporary relief." One third were referred to employment bureaus, and the rest were deemed unworthy of aid, either because they had relatives who could help or because they were thought to be lazy. They might have refused the "work test" -- chopping wood for men, sewing for women.

Wealthy people will determine if you are "deserving" of --- food and shelter. And how do you prove that you are? By being subservient and doing whatever they tell you to do. (If it's a church delivering the service be prepared to pray just the way they like it too...)

The gilded age poverty reformers finally realized that laziness wasn't the cause of poverty but rather low wages and inadequate job offerings. Many moved on to work in the labor movement. (Presumably the fine ladies who liked to deliver foodstuffs and lecture the poor on their slovenliness and sloth went back to their tatting and laudanum habits.) But as Delaney shows, the idea stayed alive, much of it informed by racist attitudes but not entirely, just waiting for the next time the conservatives feel compelled to address the issue in some way or look too much like the cold-hearted jerks they really are.

Enter the man who has to distance himself from Rand: Paul Ryan. I'm sure that after a lot of reflection and soul searching he's truly found that unlike his idol Ayn, he cares about the poor. They just need a manly John Galt to separate the moochers from the parasites. That's where he comes in.

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