Let them eat cake: The compassionate conservatism of Paul Ryan and the Republican Party


Michael Harrington’s 1962 The Other America told the story of two countries. One was a country of affluence, where people had enough to eat, a roof over their heads, health insurance, and the prospects of a good life. The other was a country where a quarter of the population lived at or below poverty, often were homeless, lacked health insurance, and whose prospects for a good life were dim at best. Both countries were the United States. And unfortunately 50 years later, not much has changed, with America still a tale of two countries–rich and poor, hopeful and hopeless. At least this is the conclusion of recent Census Bureau study on poverty in America. But despite this news, Paul Ryan and the Republicans want to gut food stamps and defund Obama Care. Yet the great irony is that the people they hurt the most are their own constituents.

First, lets look at the numbers. This past week the Census Bureau released its report Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012. Among the major conclusions were that the numbers of individuals in poverty in the United States had not changed much in the last year and that the numbers of individuals without health insurance had approximately remained the same. We have made little progress in terms of economic recovery for most Americans in the last few years since the crash of 2008. No surprise here. But what is more startling are two other points. First, one needs to read the report since it offers some historical benchmarks about poverty in America. Second, it provides a picture of whose is in poverty.

Consider the people of Michael Harrington’s Other America, When that book was published in 1962, 18% of the population or 37 million Americans lived at or below the poverty level. For children (under 18), 23% were in poverty. Fifty years later in 2012, 15% of the population, or 46.5 million American live at or below the poverty level. We have 21.8% of children (under 18) in poverty with a whopping 24.4% of children under the age of six living at or below poverty.

Think about it–the richest country in the world and a quarter of our children are living in poverty. We look like a third world country. We are condemning a quarter of our population to a bleak future, especially when we know from other studies that the rates of economic mobility in the US have literally frozen. By that, few people in the lowest income levels ever move out and are condemned to intergenerational poverty. We know that they live in neighborhoods with few services and bad schools and high crime. We have written off a quarter of our population right from the start.

But look beyond the children. Still 15% of the population below poverty and more people today who are poor than 50 years ago. Representative Paul Ryan (and many Republicans) look to 50 fears of social welfare post-Great Society New Deal spending and say the trillions spent has been a wasteful sinkhole that has not succeeded and therefore want to end it. They see a glass half empty and want to throw out the water with the glass. They ignore that poverty was cut dramatically under the Great Society programs of the 60s until Nixon cut it back and our society began a now nearly two generation reversal on helping the poor.

At least since Reagan we have concentrated tax cuts to benefit the rich at the expense of the rest of us and the redistributive economic policies since 1980 have largely shifted money from the poor to the affluent. This Census Bureau report as well as others, including those by the Congressional Budget Office and many other organizations point to an America today with the greatest concentration of wealth and income since the 1920s. It has dramatically grown in the last few decades, helped by Reagan and Bush era tax cuts.

The point? The social welfare have failed to reduce poverty both because they have been cut themselves while at the same time under-minded by other more powerful inegalitarian tax and economic policies. We have made little progress in 50 years not because we tried and failed to help the poor but because we either gave up or did not do enough.

Consider a few other facts found in the report. During the 3-year period from 2009 to 2011, approximately 31.6 percent of the population had at least one spell of poverty lasting 2 or more months. The median household income in the US was $51,017 in 2012, down from the peak of $56,080 that occurred in 1999. Median household incomes are essentially what they were in 1989. Few Americans have gained any ground in the last quarter century, with there being a steady slide that begin more or less with the Bush presidency of 2000. Finally, we have approximately 48million individuals without health insurance.

We are a poorer and less equal nation now than in 2000. For all of this, Paul Ryan and the Republicans want to cut food stamps and funding for Obama Care. This merits awarding them the “Marie Antoinette Let Them Eat Cake Award” for social compassion and humanity.

But less you believe that their policy choices are only hurting Democrats, think again. In raw numbers more white Caucasians are in poverty than people of color. The highest poverty rates in America are in the south and rural America–the heart of the GOP base. For the South, the poverty rate remained unchanged at 16.5 percent in 2012, while the number in poverty increased to 19.1 million, up from 18.4 million in 2011. In 2012, the poverty rate and the number in poverty for the Northeast (13.6 percent and 7.5 million) and the Midwest(13.3 percent and 8.9 million) were not statistically different from 2011 estimates. Inside metropolitan statistical areas, the poverty rate and the number of people in poverty were 14.5 percent, while in rural America it was 17.7 percent in 2012. Finally, the Northeast had the lowest uninsured rate in 2012 at 10.8 percent. The uninsured rate for the Midwest was 11.9 percent; for the West, 17.0 percent; and for the South, 18.6 percent.
Do an overlay of electoral maps showing regions where voters supported Republicans, there you will find the highest poverty and uninsured rates and the lowest household incomes. Either Republicans are screwing over their own constituents or for some reason those who most need the help are supporting candidates and policies they are least supportive of their own interests.

Red and Blue America is a tale of two countries. The United States, especially Red Republican America, is paradoxically much of the other America that Michael Harrington described. Yet it is the America that fights hardest against helping itself and others. Whatever happened to compassionate conservatism? I guess “Let them eat cake” is their new social philosophy.