Poor people don’t call the shots


Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a freelance journalist and blogger. He considers Bob Dylan and Walter Sobchak to be the two great Jewish thinkers of our time; he thinks Kafka was half-right when he said there was hope, "but not for us"; and he can be reached through the twitter via @eliasisquith or via email. The opinions he expresses on the blog and throughout the interwebs are exclusively his own.

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55 Responses

  1. Avatar The Warning says:

    This kind of finger pointing is just unproductive class warfare.

    The current system isn’t serving anyone’s needs adequately, but the politicians are so skilled at keeping us at one another’s throats that we can’t see we have a common enemy.

    The state.Report

    • Avatar Just John says:

      Must agree that we’d all benefit from more productive class warfare.

      Must disagree that the current system isn’t serving anyone’s needs adequately, or that the state is the common enemy since the state is an instrument. The current system appears to currently be serving the needs of ultra-wealth quite well. And it continues to meet many common needs reasonably well; less than it did at some times in the past but more than it did at other times in the past.

      I’m not sure that there’s much point in trying to find ways to give anyone more of a feeling of having skin in the game. Everyone’s got skin in the game. There’s more to political engagement than fiddling around with Skinnerian reward/punishment incentive stimuli.Report

  2. Avatar E.C. Gach says:

    I thought the whole conservative critique of government intervention was that it would inevitably end up intervening on behalf of powerful and moneyed intersets–so best not to let it intervene at all.

    But to the point here, the problem seems to be a desire to conflate two seperate things–overall spending and specific relief to the poor. If one wants to reduce spending of a certain kind, it should be argued on the merits of that alone, not how that is related to the overall budget.

    I haven’t read through the exchanges though, so maybe I’m missing something important.Report

    • Avatar greginak says:

      The Repub argument is that the non-producers/leaches/poor are dragging down all the producers. If we would just give the producers more tax cuts and less regulations happy days will be here again. Balko is channeling this a bit through his assertion poor people don’t pay federal income taxes.Report

      • Avatar Philip H. says:

        Yep, poor people don’t pay income taxes, so if you adhere to the literal words of many Republican demagogues, they should be the most incentivized to build new businesses and contribute to the growth of the economy, thus pulling themselves out of the doldrums and driving the revitalization of the economy.Report

        • Avatar The Warning says:

          Visit Hong Kong.

          Without the regulatory hurdles to entrepreneurship imposed by government, that’s exactly how it works.Report

          • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

            Hong Kong still has massive poverty, heavily subsidized housing, and a myriad of other governmental injections into society. It’s no libertarian paradise, but it does have low taxes.Report

        • Avatar trizzlor says:

          No, poor people have proven that they are incapable of contributing to society. It’s not that hard to get out of poverty – go to the library, work overtime, make some wise investments – and the poor have repeatedly elected not to do so. The job creators, on the other hand, have are the engine of our economy, and so deserve any help government can give them (by getting out of the way). Republicans don’t want low taxes they want regressive taxes.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            For many years, the Social Security tax and the Medicare/aid tax was categorized as a “Contribution” rather than a “Tax”.

            I’m sure that there was a very good reason that this was done.Report

            • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

              Typical simplistic, black-and-white libertarian thinking. It depends on context, Jay. If we’re talking about whether Social Security and Medicare benefits are welfare, then FICA payments are an insurance premium. If we’re talking about whether the poor pay taxes, then they’re a tax.Report

    • Avatar MFarmer says:

      One way to look at it is that the poor are used as a power/voting base, so statists use tax payer money to corral the poor on their side, unconcerned if it’s good for the poor or not, so what we’re talking about is directing money in the private sector away from productive uses to buy the voting power of the poor.Report

      • As long as one is ignorant of, or ignores, the fact that the poor vote *less* than other socioeconomic groups, this is indeed a bang-up theory.Report

      • Avatar MFarmer says:

        But those who believe that a government safety net is vital to the poor do vote, thus the poor plus those who vote thinking they’re helping poor do make a large voting base.

        I’m not all that ignorant really.Report

      • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

        Actually, the problem is not enough poor people vote in their own interests.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          If only they were smart like us and would vote for their own interests like we do. (Lights cigar with $100 bill)Report

        • Avatar Murali says:

          So if we made explicit the kinds of costs on the worst off of the policies that many politicians peddle, then this would incentivise them to vote.

          Look, Kain and Balko are not arguing that the poor are voting for welfare programs and the such. Rather, whatever their current political participation levels and patterns, Balko’s policies, which would solidify the worst off (and may be even the middle class) as a single voting block.

          Obviously, both of you agree that they cuurently are not. The reason that they currently are not, is because while the poor are hurt by current policies, they are not aware of being hurt. They are baboozled into despair and apathy. Or more accurately, the individual costs of becomeing more politically active for the poor make it rational for them to be apathetic. Disincentivising such apathy would therefore be transformative.Report

        • Avatar Scott says:


          Of course the poor vote their own interest, why do you think that Dems always get the poor inner city vote, b/c the Dems are going to keep the welfare dollars flowing.Report

  3. Avatar BSK says:

    First off, that is one of my favorite XKCDs.

    Second off, as far as I understand and I haven’t seen anything contradicting it (but am more than open to being proven wrong), included in that 47% or whatever the percentage of households not paying income tax are senior citizens lively solely or primarily off Social Security. These are people who, for all intents and purposes, are not working and living off retirement savings (a forced retirement savings plan the government mandates them to join and in which payouts do not necessarily correlate to contributions but, a savings plan of sorts nonetheless). As far as I’m concerned, they should not count towards that 47%. You also have homes in which no one works. Should we expect non-workers to pay income tax? That seems a bit absurd. Now, some/many/most of these people might collect money from the government and there is something incredibly problematic if these people are in long-term situations of not-working-yet-collecting, but that is not necessarily the case for most, especially with the various time limits under which one can collect welfare. My point is that 47% is misleading. Just how misleading, I don’t know, but it is, especially when it is quickly doctored up by folks who say “Half of people don’t pay income tax” which is only a short jump from “More than half of people don’t pay income tax” which quickly morphs into “More than half of people don’t pay any tax at all” which even more quickly turns into “More than half of people don’t pay any tax at all and they are all on welfare!” Holy exaggeration, Batman!

    Now, to the meat of the matter, I don’t think Radley’s proposal is particularly tenable, even if the hypothetical. If we accept the 47% figure, they still are not a majority. No matter how unanimous they are in their voting, they can’t guarantee any government increase or decreases. But the other side sure can. What happens if the other 53% vote to cut their own taxes? Well, that money has to be made up somewhere. So down (or up?) goes the negative income tax. Whoops.Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

      If we accept the 47% figure, they still are not a majority. No matter how unanimous they are in their voting, they can’t guarantee any government increase or decreases.

      Nothing magic happens at 50%. They don’t all vote, and they don’t all vote for whoever promises them the biggest handouts. On the other hand, taxpayers don’t all vote, and they don’t all vote for whoever promises them the lowest tax rates.

      The point is how it works on the margin. The more people who are getting a free ride, the more guaranteed votes the Democrats lock in. The more guaranteed votes the Democrats have, the farther to the left they can non-suicidally move, and the farther to the left the Republicans have to move to pick up enough swing votes to have a chance at winning.

      Having 51% of the adult population as free-riders isn’t necessarily going to send us into a welfare-state death spiral (we may be in one already as it is), but there’s good reason to believe that having more free riders pushes the median voter to the left.Report

  4. Avatar Jaybird says:

    In general, I’m not fond of the strain that I see sometimes in politics (on the right and left) that advocates policies which are kind of paternalistic in essence, whether it’s the “save you from yourself” kind or the “learn the consequences of your actions” kind.

    I think that the idea of a Social Safety Net in the first place is (to be sure: the “good” kind of) Paternalism. The problem comes with the bad kind piggy-backing on the good kind.

    Imagine a polling question:
    “Do you think people who receive welfare benefits should be randomly drug tested?”

    I’m not asking how you feel about it (I’m pretty sure that you know how I feel about it) but I’m asking you how you think that this question would poll. My suspicion is that it would have a 2:1 ratio of yeses to nos.

    Now, if you look at Florida where they recently passed a law saying that folks had to be tested (read about that story here), you’ll see that most recipients tested negative. Like, in overwhelming numbers. As in 36 out of the 38 tested. This creates more hassle for people, more invasions of privacy, more loss of dignity, and more overall unpleasantness…

    But let’s go back to that polling question… I think that if we are to overcome our attachment to “bad” paternalism while keeping the good, there’s a lot of stuff that needs to be overcome. At the same time, saying that out loud to the folks who consider themselves net tax payers who don’t see themselves as direct beneficiaries of the social safety net would be political suicide.Report

    • Avatar BSK says:

      “At the same time, saying that out loud to the folks who consider themselves net tax payers who don’t see themselves as direct beneficiaries of the social safety net would be political suicide.”

      Maybe they don’t see themselves as direct beneficiaries of the social safety net, but surely we can demonstrate to them, with hard data/facts/charts/etc. that they are also financial beneficiaries of government “hand outs”. If they realized the ways in which their own lifestyle is government subsidized, directly or indirectly, maybe they would have a tad more empathy for those they so easily call “leaches”.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Oh, I’m sure that they use roads and whatnot and benefit from that, but if they still view themselves as net tax payers (and, for the most part, most of the folks that file will see themselves that way) even after it’s demonstrated to them how much of the stuff they use is subsidized.

        (And, for the record, I fully support making everybody painfully aware of how much of their lifestyle is subsidized and how.)Report

        • Avatar BSK says:

          Oh, I’m not even just talking about roads and such. You know those subsidized student loans? That “subsidized” isn’t thrown on their for style. What about the enormous tax breaks, like mortgage interest or child care costs or health insurance? Hm… that money doesn’t come from nowhere. How much would food cost if not for corn subsidies? On and on and on. The bigger issue is people inherently see what they receive as earned or deserved and what OTHERS receive as unearned or stolen. Until you can undo that…Report

      • Avatar MFarmer says:

        I don’t think anyone is blaming the poor and calling them leeches. It’s more like those in power are manipulating the poor for their own advantage. The poor would be much better off in a free market in which private assistance replaces the welfare state, thus depoliticizing assistance to the poor. The middle class and the wealthy can purchase their own “safety nets” through comprehensive insurance plan. Once the tax code is simplified to collect what is necessary for a limited government and regulations are abolished, the economy will produce the types of jobs which will give a path to the poor into the next “class” — many more small and medium size businesses. It only benefits politicians and government officials to keep poor people poor.Report

        • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

          The lack of adequate “private assistance” is what drove the creation of the “welfare state” to begin with.

          What evidence is there that simply deregulating the market and simplifying the tax code will bring back middle class wage jobs?Report

          • Avatar MFarmer says:

            It might not by themselves, but in combination with true limitations on government, businesses, especially start-ups, would have more confidence to bring the money off the sidelines. We would likely see a renaissance in economic growth, innovation and creativity in all areas, business, art, music — it could be a new Greek miracle of culture and prosperity. I think it’s worth giving a try, because drowning in debt and stagnation is no fun — much more of this and states will not have the money to help poor people.Report

            • Avatar Murali says:

              Mr Farmer, the problem with private assistance is that there is no reason why ven under the best of conditions, a market for charity would clear. As JamesK has said, in normal markets epople get something in return for what they spend in a way where prices can adjust until the market clears. i.e. all or most of the product is sold off. However, adjusting the price downwards, while making more people willing to donate, does not guarantee that most if not all the poor are not starving on the streets.Report

              • Avatar MFarmer says:

                Those calculations don’t apply — it’s not a market transaction. There’s no difference between government collecting money and sending it out and people voluntarily funding private assistance organizations, plus there would assuredly be thousands of local, small efforts once the national mindset changes. There’s no way to know definitely if people would donate enough to meet the needs, but we might have to find out. I think private assistance would be better funded and more effective because of the serious problem with waste fraud and abuse in government — it can also happen in the private sector, but competition and oversight will minimize these problems — any org caught in fraudulent activity would be figuratively slaughtered.Report

              • Avatar MFarmer says:

                This is a spiritual thang, not an economic thang, and America is hungry for a spiritual revival, an active role in social problems and solutions — not necessarily religious, but spiritual, on a deeper level than “clearing ” a market.Report

              • Avatar Murali says:

                not necessarily religious, but spiritual

                That makes it no less problematic for a liberal/libertarian state. It’s not clear that the government should care one way or another about our spirituality. If the state ought to be indifferent about various conceptions of the good, then the state ought to be fine with everyone being materialists.Report

    • Avatar Jeff says:

      I think that the idea of a Social Safety Net in the first place is (to be sure: the “good” kind of) Paternalism.

      [sarcasm]What a shock![/sarcasm] Keeping your neighbor from starving or freezing to death is Paternalism of the worst kind


    • All of this is true and worth keeping in mind, definitely. I have no doubt that such kind of questions would poll consistently and overwhelmingly in favor of adoption. It’s one of the more effective arguments against much of the welfare state as presently designed, to my mind — the inherent paternalism.Report

  5. Avatar Steve S. says:

    1. Here in Washington state we pay hefty sales taxes (supports nearly 50% of the general fund, the vast majority of which goes to education and human services) and one of the nation’s highest gas taxes. In other words, a large proportion of the government services which the poor avail themselves of is funded regressively. At least in my state, the notion that the poor and working classes have no skin in the game because they pay little or no federal income tax is ludicrous.

    2. Every working poor person I ever knew got a rebate check from the IRS every year and immediately spent it on bills and consumer goods. That’s a good thing, right?Report

  6. Avatar MFarmer says:

    But those who believe that a government safety net is vital to the poor do vote, thus the poor plus those who vote thinking they’re helping poor do make a large voting base.Report

    • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

      Take the poor and cut them in half. Maybe the remainder votes. Then cut it in half again for political parties.

      Perhaps 25% of the poor people are driving public policy? And things like mortgage interest deductions are great…if you have a mortgage, but poor households don’t.

      Welfare reform in the late 90s overwhelmingly hurt the poor, yet nothing like the T-Party formed on their behalf.

      This is all nonsense.Report

      • Avatar MFarmer says:

        40% of the lowest 20% vote — this is not much different from from the next 20% groups until you get to the highest 20% which is 61%. Most people have been taught that the State is the only means for assistance, but this is not true, and if we think out of the box, we’ll realize that private assistance has the potential of being far more effective, plus it has the extra benefit of not nbankrupting the nation. The reason private assistance is not sufficient is because government took over and created the impression that the State is the last resort. Tocqueville realized differently that America had a special genius for private assistance, but it has been practically destroyed through the welfare state.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        Take the poor and cut them in half.

        Now, look, I’m the last one who’d suggest that we should be coddling the poor, and certainly I think we should subsidize them less. But this strikes me as a bit extreme.Report

      • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

        Tocqueville is a super old guy and was writing about the 19th century United States.

        The money all comes from somewhere, whether private or public. And in most instances, the welfare is of a nature that it can be provided more efficiently by local, state, or federal governments than individual organizations.

        “The reason private assistance is not sufficient is because government took over and created the impression that the State is the last resort.”

        Again, not true. Government took over BECAUSE private assistance was inadequate. You’re looking at events, but literally in reverse, as if government welfare were the cause of failed private charity.

        Then again, if you think the America Tocqueville visited was a welfare state, we must have long since passed the statist point of no return.Report

        • Avatar MFarmer says:

          Private assistance would likely be far more efficient and helpful than the welfare state. Innovation and the spiritual jolt to the nation would surely lead to renewed sense of community and responsibility. Most people want to help, and in a free market that creates better economic growth — it would have to do better than what we’ve seen — people would have enough money to contribute to their charity of choice, and then competition among private assistance orgs would help insure improvement in delivery — when people started taking an interest in their orgs of choice, it could transform the way we think about and understand poverty. If the entire nation is looking at the problem and paying attention and directly participating, having a say, solutions will likely bloom across the nation. The time has never been more ripe, especially for those with jobs to buy their own safety net policies, thus assuring that government will have sufficient emergency funds in an economic downturn if private assistance somehow falters.Report

          • Avatar BSK says:

            What evidence is there of this? Do you really think there are people who say, “I’d love to donate money to the poor but, gosh, these darn taxes just prevent me from doing so!” How many of us took our rebate checks or whatever they were called from the Bush tax cuts and donated them? And I’m not talking about donating them to cancer research or the ASPCA. I’m talking about donating them to soup kitchens or other organizations that would need tons more funding if not for welfare.Report

            • Avatar BSK says:

              I should clarify… I meant to say “Do you really think there are OODLES of people…” I have no doubt that there are many. But I am highly doubtful that there are enough to make up the difference.Report

            • Avatar MFarmer says:

              Yes, I think the majority would respond if challenged — “if challenged” is operative. The idea that the State is taking care of poverty allows people to ignore the problem, but if nationally we are challenged and it becomes a social good to research and find the right private assistance org to help, it would blossom. Companies, working with the private orgs, could even offer to have 5$, $10, whatever someone can afford, a week taken out.
              Celebrities could get involved to market private orgs and musicians could put concerts together to raise awareness and money. At social gatherings people would begin comparing their donations and private orgs of choice — the internet is set up to make donating interactive, so that you could get reports on those helped, faces and names placed on the poor, how Annie G. rose out of poverty and became an executive, so on and so forth — released from the incompetent hands of the State, thousands of creative solutions can develope. We’re good at marketing, too.Report

          • Avatar trizzlor says:

            How about this: We the people vote on a compulsory income percentage that should go to charities (part of one’s duties as a citizen). At the end of the year, when you fill out your income tax you can designate where that money should go. If you don’t specify, it gets distributed according to some weighted random scheme. If that works for a while, the amount becomes recommended rather than compulsory. And if that works for a while, the whole thing is scrapped and people fund charities directly.

            One thing that bugs me is about this is that you’d never be able to fund something like the Human Genome Project. Then again, you wouldn’t be able to fund the Wermacht either.Report