The Left's War on the Poor

Why does the Left so hate the poor? For all its pious intonations of compassion, its consistent project has been to make their lives immeasurably harder.

We could start, of course, with Johnson’s “War on Poverty” that not only ended in abject defeat -- the same percentage of Americans are in poverty now as were in 1967, when the “war” was initiated -- but stripped the poor of their one consistent network of support: the family. That sad and completely predictable result would be enough to prove the point.  But the complex ramifications of the many bad decisions and ill-considered legislative “fixes” are too numerous to recount in a single column and could not be remedied without a wholesale repeal that undid damage to the poor that has played out over 40 years.  It would take another 40 years to remedy it.  But we need not go back that far.  The Left’s war on the poor and working classes continues and is accelerating.

Liberal elites have always maintained a sneering disdain for the cultural preferences of the great middle class, of course.  Take, for example, Norman Rockwell, perhaps the best loved artist of the American middle class.  Elite critics dismissed his work for what they referred to as his “mawkish sentimentalism” and criticized it as an “unending cliché.”  Rockwell was never, in his lifetime, regarded as a “serious” artist by the liberal art establishment.  The liberal elite’s critique of popular novels, television reality shows and the middle class’ embrace of sporting events from football to Nascar follows the same disdainful path.

It doesn’t stop there, of course.  Everything is fair game, from popular architectural tastes to clothing to fast food.  Liberal elites have been at war with McDonalds for years, warning the poor and working classes that they risk themselves and their children’s lives by eating -- much less liking -- fast food hamburgers even as it ignores the fact that fast food is all many can consistently afford.  Recall the hosannas with which the producer of “Supersize Me” was greeted by academic and elite critics.  They are easy cultural targets and a proxy for elite scorn for the poor and working classes who, we are told, do not enjoy the superior, rarified tastes of their betters.

It would be one thing if the criticism were restricted to literary publications and faculty lounges. But that contempt prompts a chauvinistic paternalism that finds its way into legislation that does everything from prohibiting schools from serving anything students would actually like to eat to mandating what medical care they get to governing how they raise their children to forcing them to join organizations they don’t want to join.  In its patronizing condescension, the left tells the poor in every possible way that they are not to be trusted with self-determination and personal freedom.

Perhaps liberal scorn for middle class tastes and cultural preferences could be brushed off as so much white noise were it not for the fact that the public policy that proceeds from it is so immensely expensive, so culturally corrosive, so destructive to individual freedom that it makes lives already made hard by poverty incalculably harder. It is an unconscionable war on the poor.

California is the paradigmatic leftist state and it provides a handy preview of the left’s national intentions.  California’s cap and trade program (known as AB 32) forces utilities to rely increasingly on inefficient “green” technology -- solar, wind and geothermal -- for power generation.  Utilities were required to generate 20% of their electricity from such “renewables” by 2010 and 33% by 2020.  The use of this inefficient technology is expected to increase electricity costs by 33% over the next several years. Indeed, California utilities have already increased rates by more than 12%, on average, over the last few years.  This, the result of a misbegotten legislative effort that will have absolutely no impact on the international CO2 emissions activists claim are warming the planet.  In addition to California’s forced increases in the cost of electricity, the EPA has implemented rules that have increased electricity rates across the nation by 39% since 2003.

Who suffers?  A 39% increase in electricity rates can be absorbed by the liberal, upper middle classes who press for the reforms that cause them.  But Americans making $30,000 or less cannot afford that hit, let alone a combined federal/California increase of more than 55%. That is why some Democratic legislators in California are now calling for a delay in the implementation of some of the more rigorous elements of California’s cap and trade law. They now understand that an increase of $20, $30 or $40 per month is not affordable to poor and working class Americans.  But it is too late.  The poor and those on fixed incomes will be colder this winter and for winters to come, as a result.

Energy and environmental programs championed by the Left are increasing gasoline prices throughout the nation. This is deliberate, of course, as President Obama acknowledged in an interview some years ago. The intent is to coerce people to drive less or take public transportation to support environmental goals.  Who suffers?  When someone with an annual income of $100,000 goes into a gas station, he does not look at the price per gallon.  All he knows is that he has to fill his tank and will pay whatever the pump says he must.  But Americans making $30,000 or less cannot afford that luxury.  The price per gallon matters to them.  Already, California’s environmental legislation adds 50 cents to every gallon of gas because the state’s fuel blending requirements mean gasoline cannot be imported from any other states.  California’s new legislation will increase the cost by an additional 40 to 50 cents per gallon. And, of course, the ever wrong Paul Krugman is calling for an additional increase in national gas taxes of 20 cents a gallon.

Who suffers?  The poor and working classes for whom increases in the cost of basic needs consume a greater percentage of their already modest incomes.  What will be sacrificed so the poor and lower middle class can get to work?  Food? Clothing?  Heat in winter or cooling in summer?  Those forced onto public transportation will be exposed to higher concentrations of people and thus to the illnesses spread through increased population density.  Recent studies have found microbes from everything from flu viruses to bubonic plague on the surfaces of units of public transportation.  So, to serve the environmental neuroses of the elite professional class that can afford to drive and avoid concentrated crowds, the left has implemented policies that further impoverish the poor and expose them to greater health risks.

Gas prices have recently gone down with the price of oil, no thanks to liberal policymaking, so the poor have been temporarily relieved.  But already leftists are seeing this unexpected market driven benefit as an opportunity to lard on more taxes while prices are low so people won’t notice.  But when prices increase again, as surely they will, the poor will be hit with ever more force by unaffordable fuel costs.

The left has recently sponsored legislative increases in the minimum wage the result of which has been that fast-food restaurants have increased the price of food to meet their increased personnel costs.  Who suffers? The poor and working classes who disproportionately consume fast food because it is cheap and flavorful.  As usual, the change is also prompting technological innovation that allows customers to order and pay for food without interacting with a human being through the use of computer screens.  This technology is increasingly being adopted to cut down on the number of employees necessary to operate.  Who suffers?  Teenagers, the poor and lower middle classes who make up the bulk of displaced restaurant workers.  To the Left, no job is better than one at a lower minimum wage.

Everyone -- left and right -- agrees that the surest means of escaping poverty is a sound education, but as the plaintiffs proved in a lawsuit in California, Vergarra v. California, leftist teacher union rules diminish the quality of education especially for the children of poverty, permanently hobbling their chances at moving up the economic ladder.  Who suffers?  Generations of poor children doomed to lives of quiet desperation so unions can maintain political hegemony in the nation’s most populous state.

Perhaps it is because so few leftist theoreticians have ever experienced the gnawing hunger of poverty that they have so little sensitivity to the grinding fear with which the poor live every day.  The intellectual foundation of leftist thought is its rationalist view that policy is properly based on what is imagined rather than what is experienced.  That allows them to, at once, wail their big-hearted concern for the poor even as their policies wage an unremitting war against them.

At some point, bad results trump good intentions and protestations of compassion ring hollow in the face of policy designed, intentionally or not, to carry out an unrelenting war on the poor monumental in its scope and destructive in its consequences.  A genuine war on poverty -- one with a real prospect of success -- would let the market innovate and build, unravel taxation as a means of social engineering and give less attention to speculative problems of the future than we do to opportunity in the present.