Equality of Opportunity: Raising the tide instead of the yachts.

American conservatives feel that they have to cut off benefits to the unemployed and the poor because they think very little of people, in general. They believe that many, possibly even most people would rather sit at home and watch television than work. They don’t care that there aren’t jobs (as evidenced by their failure to do anything about creating them). They don’t care that there are mothers receiving assistance because it would cost more to put kids in daycare than you can make at a minimum wage job. They honestly don’t care about the facts on the ground, as it were, because they believe people are making excuses to not work.

Now, they may, in fact, understand otherwise. They might just be playing to a base that like to hear such things, but this is too cynical, even for my blog, and I have to assume that they are acting in the best interest of the country as they see it. I will try, then, to educate the conservatives who find their way here.

The fact is that there is very little evidence of what people in a country with western culture would do if they didn’t have to work. What we do know is that there are a lot of mothers receiving government support for their families. According to the Census Bureau, SNAP kept 4 million people out of poverty last year. Two thirds of those people are children, elderly, or disabled, which is to say people who are not expected to work. Indeed, the GOP has made noise about rolling back child labor standards, but that is another post.

In fact, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities tell us “Contrary to “Entitlement Society” Rhetoric, Over Nine-Tenths of Entitlement Benefits Go to Elderly, Disabled, or Working Households“. 90%, for those who like numerical notation, of the money spent on entitlement programs in the USA goes to people who are working or who cannot work a full-time job because of age or disability. There is very little fraud, and most of these people are doing exactly what is expected of them.

So, what about those few people who are “gaming the system?” That surfer from California, for instance? Yeah… every system has some flaws and every program will be abused in some way. Isn’t it worth knowing that in the greatest country in the world, people aren’t starving to death? Is that really something to be ashamed of?

Finally, I did say that there was little evidence to show what might happen if people didn’t have to work; how society would look if people knew they would be fed and housed and that no entrepreneurial, educational, or artistic risk would leave them destitute. There is exactly one case that could be of real interest to us in the USA.

In Canada, in the 1970s, there was an experiment conducted by Canada’s elected liberals in Dauphin, Manitoba. They made sure that no one in that jurisdiction was poor. Called “Mincome”, every poor adult in the area was paid by the national and Provincial governments, to insure that no one lived below the poverty line. The participants were encouraged to work and earn for themselves, having their supplement reduced only  50 cents for every dollar they earned. The government wondered if people would keep working. Most did. Employment went down in 2 areas: New mothers and teenagers. New mothers spent more time with their children. Teenagers spent more time in school, as evidenced by higher graduation rates.

It allowed people to take the jobs that were available, based on whether they thought it would be good for them, rather than if it made the most money. People could wait for the opening they really wanted. It meant a lot more than simple employment, though. According to Dr. Evelyn Forget, a researcher at the University of Manitoba who is looking at the recently unsealed documents from the 4 year experiment, “We already know that hospitalizations went down and people stayed in school longer.” Hospitalizations went down? “When you walk around a hospital, it’s pretty clear that a lot of the time what we’re treating are the consequences of poverty,” she says.

Her research shows that “In the period that Mincome was administered, hospital visits dropped 8.5 per cent. Fewer people went to the hospital with work-related injuries and there were fewer emergency room visits from car accidents and domestic abuse. There were also far fewer mental health visits.” Those are some pretty impressive results.

In short, this program only applied to 1000 families, about 30% of the population of the rural town. It ultimately cost more than $17 million. It also resulted in an 8.5 per cent decrease in healthcare costs, which was be substantial savings in a country with nationalized health care. In short, people were happier, healthier and, at least arguably, more productive, not less.

Given the limited facts available on the issue, it is unconscionable to let people live in fear for their homes, their families, and their health. It is within the power of the American Government to create a country where every person is permitted to educate themselves to the full extent of their desire to learn. We could be funding the greatest inventors and entrepreneurs by letting even those born to poverty take the risks that the rich take for granted. We could live up to our presumption of superiority by funneling our resources into our people, all of them, to see what Americans can achieve when they live in hope instead of worry. There is a loud, but well funded, minority working to ensure that we do not. That is the privileged class, trying to hang on to their advantage. It isn’t American, and we need to put an end to it. It is fine to reward success, even to the 7th generation, but we need to equalize the opportunity and institutionalize mobility. Only then can we return to our history of advancement and leadership and pull out of the political and cultural nose dive we currently face.

“Mincome” sources:

http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/local/dauphins-great-experiment.html

http://www.dominionpaper.ca/articles/4100

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/1970s-manitoba-poverty-experiment-called-a-success-1.868562

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5 Responses

  1. This is very interesting. I don’t pretend to really know or understand politics, but my parents are conservatives. I think they would say that we need to spend money generating jobs so that everyone would be better off rather than spending money on many programs that do not work. Also that our government is too broke right now to do anything else. I believe this is what they would say. I think the experiment you posted is very interesting.

    • I can answer most of that.

      “we need to spend money generating jobs”
      http://www.americanjobsact.com/ gives the president’s plan to creat jobs, a key point of which is “Making an Immediate Investment in Our Roads, Rails and Airports”. Those are jobs. That is where the President wants to spend money. Congress will not even vote on it, because budget votes have to start in the House, and that is controlled by people who don’t care how much America suffers, as long as Obama fails.

      “our government is too broke right now”
      That is a very complicated issue. The US has more money that any other nation in the world. We also had, until recently, the best possible credit rating (The GOP brought it down a little bit recently[http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/documents/spratingreport_080611.pdf])
      That means that our bonds cost us a little more than they did 2 years ago.
      Corporations are making record profits; literally more money than ever in human history. They aren’t paying taxes on that money, though. The people making the most money are only making more and more (look up “income inequality) while people who used to make up the middle class are making less and less. Still, the people who work for a living pay higher taxes than people who live off of investments. That means that the IRS is collecting less money from individuals, even as the people at the top are making more than enough to off-set the money lost by the rest of us.
      Finally, the economy crashed just as George W Bush was winding down his second term. Obama inherited a huge spending problem by way of 2 wars, massive tax cuts, and a failing financial sector. He has still brought down the deficit every year since his first year in office in 2009. Things have only gotten better and better in the last few years, but 90% of those improvements have gone to corporations and billionaire investors, and little has “trickled down” to the rest of us. And since the people making the money don’t pay taxes like the rest of us, the government doesn’t have the revenue that it should.
      Are we broke? Far from it. We’ve got billions to invest if we choose to move money from wars and multimillion dollar “business” trips for members of Congress. What we have is a problem with our priorities and our tax code.

      Please, read over The American Jobs Bill and look at what we could be doing to turn things around. We just have to convince Congress that doing these things is more important than making the first black president look bad.

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