The Democratic Party's War on the Poor

It was a proud day in Medellín, Colombia.  Mayor Alonso Salazar smiled as he announced the city's latest accomplishment, and a sycophantic press reported his happy message verbatim.

The 12,000 desperately poor people of Medellín's Comuna 13, a shantytown set high atop a steep hill, had spent generations climbing up and down some 530 mountainside stairs to reach their homes.  It has always been a 35-minute walk, each way, a challenge for even the healthiest among them.  But it is no longer.

What did the city do to alleviate the pain of its most destitute?  The city of Medellín, long known as the home of one of the world's most notorious drug cartels, built the people of Comuna 13 six sets of escalators.  One column up, one down, both outdoors, both designed to carry the poorest of Medellín's poor back up to their miserable a cost to the taxpayer of some USD 6.7 million.

Yes, you read it right: two sets of escalators, uncovered, up and down the side of a hill, to and from a ghetto.  That's 1,260 feet of escalator, each way, outdoors, at a time of year in which thunderstorms are predicted for every one of the first ten days of its operation (plans to enclose it are under consideration, but if they don't move fast, perhaps they may as well save themselves the bother). 

Now, why do we turn to a foreign country for an example of the critical failing of the American Democratic Party?  Because the way American conservatives and liberals react to this story of misguided social programs is the American economic debate in a microcosm.

Giving an A for Effort

The modern American liberal looks to the effort of the do-gooder and cheers.  You see people in pain, anguished and weakened by a lifetime of climbing that mountain -- down to shop or work, back up to sleep, day after day, year after year -- and you want to help.  So you build them an escalator.

The new escalator will soften the poverty a bit.  It won't cure it, of course, because such poverty cannot be cured.  In the zero-sum world of the American left, the poor remain poor, the middle class remain middle-class, and the wealthy remain wealthy.  So the goal must be to take some of the money from the latter two groups to allay the pain of the poor.  This is what government is for, after all.

If the rain shorts out the electricity so one, then two, then three of these escalators cease to work, that's okay; you can't help the weather.  If the idea of enclosing it later instead of beforehand to protect it from the elements in a region of heat and rain and mudslides didn't seem odd to anyone, that's okay; it hasn't been done before, so it's okay that there were some bugs left to work out.  And if the people stay poor, that's okay; they were going to stay poor anyway.  At least now they're poor people who don't have aching feet and backs from a 28-story climb.

To the liberal, this story is a success, a feel-good tale to reassure the reader of the basic goodness of government.

An Indictable Offense to the Senses

The American conservative has the opposite reaction in virtually every way.  The American conservative is horrified that they would build an electrically operated escalator outdoors on a muddy hill in the rainy season without even enclosing it first -- horrified that all this tax money is spent on free transportation to a crime-ridden danger zone -- horrified that the press didn't respond critically, attacking the idea for the ridiculous waste that it is.

Consider the basic idea of placing an outdoor escalator in an undesirable part of town: both the conservative and the liberal know that, for a little more money, it can be made relatively weatherproof.  But both also know that such bells and whistles make breakdowns more likely, more frequent.  The liberal doesn't mind -- to him, it's the thought that counts.  The conservative minds very much -- he knows that tales of elevator breakdowns in American public housing -- left unrepaired for months or years -- are ubiquitous.  It is the conservative who thinks ahead, who contemplates the cost of the increased likelihood of needed repairs, of repairs that will be postponed, for longer and longer intervals, until finally the city loses interest entirely and leaves it a permanent shambles, as befitting its location.  The bigger the scale of the do-gooder's project, the more crushing its eventual collapse will be to the community it was unwisely installed to serve.

The liberal would assume that this means that the American conservative is heartless, because the liberal sees nothing past the aching ankles and backs of the residents.  But the conservative is in fact the one who really cares, because the conservative gauges the effectiveness of a proposal by whether it raises its charges out from poverty or not.  The conservative knows that addressing symptoms without addressing the cause is no cure.

One of the best definitions of the difference between the conservative and the liberal is this (which I first heard enunciated by Newt Gingrich, though I have no idea whether it's original to him or not): the liberal defines success by how many people he has managed to help through government action; the conservative defines success by how many people he has freed from need of such assistance.

Viewed from this vantage point, we see that the mayor and his friendly press down there in Colombia have exactly the wrong attitude: they are spending $6.7 million to help return people to a shantytown every day.  What they should be doing is trying to free these poor people from Comuna 13 -- to help them earn better salaries so they can, one day, come down from that mountaintop and never, ever be compelled to return!

The Deathly Goal of the Living Wage

For a century or more, one of the greatest goals of the left has been to ensure that every wage is a living wage.  The left advocates a minimum wage that would first allow a worker to support himself, then himself and a spouse, then himself and a family.  If the employer balks at the idea that every employee at every level should be paid well enough to support a family, the employer is branded as heartless, and the unions rise up and picket him or shut him down.

The American left has loaded up the employer with mandates: the boss must provide health insurance, unemployment insurance, a retirement plan.  What they can't force directly, they add to the list of what the state will provide, and then force the employer to pay for it through his taxes -- hence the burden of schools and parks and community colleges and public buses and public commuter trains.  All so that the burden of being on the bottom -- the entry-level clerk or assembly line worker or forklift operator -- is less distasteful than it would have been without all these benefits.  Without all this, those entry-level personnel might work harder to get a promotion, to escape the distasteful aspects of being on the bottom.  And anything you do to make the basic more bearable, the less likely it is that those already there will expend the extra effort to move up.

This is exactly what we've done in America with the poor.  We've softened the blow of poverty to such an extent that the will to pull oneself up from its clutches is lessened.

If you have to work to pay the rent for a hovel, you'll work a little harder to get a better place.  If you have to work to pay for rotten food, you'll work a little harder to afford better food.  If you have to work to buy poor clothing, to send your children to substandard tutors, to bicycle to work, then you'll appreciate the immense advantage of working a little harder for the promotion that allows you to buy a little better clothing, to send your children to more accomplished teachers, and to drive an air-conditioned compact car instead of riding a bicycle in the rain and heat.

But ever since FDR's New Deal and LBJ's Great Society, the left has insisted on giving out the crummy housing rent-free, giving food stamps for free food, and doling out free tuition to crummy grammar schools and danger-zone high schools.  We subsidize the public transportation of our cities so that the poor can ride in an air-conditioned bus or train for free or nearly free.

All this does not make it a joy to be poor, of course.  It's still a miserable life.  But all these freebies, all these misguided little benefits, have warped the ability of individuals to rationally judge the delta between their current lifestyle and their potential future lifestyle in a job, their potential future lives in the middle class.

From work to harder work and potential promotion is a small additional effort, often producing great advancement in happiness.  But from non-work to work is a massive additional effort.  Once the person can get subsistence for free, the ratio is warped, making the delta of quality of life look impossible to justify.

Contrary to the liberals' assumption of their opponents' motives, it isn't that the conservative doesn't want the poor to stop suffering; it's specifically because the conservative cares about the poor that he opposes these golden handcuffs of government benefits.  The conservative wants everyone to be inspired to work to the best of his ability, to earn the advancement of that work, to advance in life and class.  The conservative wants the rolls of the poor to diminish, and the rolls of the middle class to swell with hardworking and deserving new arrivals.

In addition to the sociology of the matter, the conservative does the math, too.  The conservative knows that every penny paid out to the unproductive must have first been generated by the productive.  The employers we desperately need to hire these poor people are starved of operating capital by rising taxes.  The American business sector would love to expand, love to hire and promote more and more from the ranks of the unemployed and underemployed.  But they can't, because every dollar they'd like to pay for employees is instead snatched by the greedy paws of the leviathan.

And then the leviathan acts benevolently, passing out the free housing, free cheese, free health care, free tuition...utterly oblivious to the fact that it's this very mountain of freebies that has crushed our employers, robbing the poor of opportunities, keeping them in their misery.

The Democrats tell the poor that they support them; they care for them; they will work for more benefits, more checks, more "refundable tax credits" (the Newspeak of 1984 has indeed arrived, in that one).  The Democrats claim to be the party of the poor, perhaps never even realizing that their every measure tightens the lock on the fences that keep the poor in their current condition.

How Prescient "The War on Poverty"

We never knew when the Democrats announced "the war on poverty" that they meant it literally.

The American left has spent a century filling our cities with addictive little handcuffs of fool's gold for America's poor.  These substandard freebies are plentiful, but they're lost if you work, or work harder, or get a promotion, or marry the father of your children. 

The day the American welfare system first made it more desirable to stay on relief than to move up to just the next notch upward -- that was the day that the Democrats truly declared war on America's poor.

The right may not look like Santa Claus nearly as often as the left does, but the right is always the one with the best interests of the poor in mind.  If only the rank-and-file Democrat electorate would consider these issues objectively for once, and come over to the side of logic!

Where the poor are concerned, the American left cheers as potential employers are strangled by taxes and regulations that fund an ever-expanding downward spiral of institutional anchors for everyone unlucky enough to be born or otherwise drawn into their miserable subculture.

No, the American right will never cheer any escalator that makes it easier for the downtrodden to return home to a hilltop shantytown of drugs, violence, and poverty.  The American right knows that only the limitless potential of limited government can cure what ails our cities -- and that the cure is always capitalism, never statism.

America's Democrats may cheer the construction of this "stairway to hades" all they want; the American right will cheer only when those poor residents are someday able to depart from their hellish shantytown for good.

John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade lecturer.  His columns appear regularly in

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